Photo by Dan McManus
“Professional artist” is not a career known for fiscal security. So, each year, alongside making art and (usually) a day job, artists tediously file applications for grants and fellowships. In December, painter and Newport resident David Barnes was one of the fortunate few to receive a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.
Since 1985, the foundation has doled out handsome sums to established artists in-need of financial assistance. "It's nice their legacy is being given to painters. I feel a little bit connected, " Barnes said.
Grantees do not have to be stylistically indebted to Lee Krasner or Jackson Pollock, the Abstract Expressionist power couple who shook the terra firma of the mid-century American art scene. But the body of work should be fluent, progressive and routinely on view.
“It represents some kind of important step in your painting career,” Barnes said. “It’s one of those door-opening things, mostly to other grants.” This past semester, Barnes taught three courses at Bristol Community College, sometimes to the detriment of studio time. (Interested students, by the way, can take his Figure Painting Workshop at Newport Art Museum this month.) With the grant, Barnes can loosen his academic schedule and find more time to paint.
“It’s enough money to make something possible,” Barnes said. While he “can’t retire” from the grant, it will help him visit Rome and “check out some art.” It’s intriguing to think how this excursion into antiquity might influence Barnes’ style. His subject matter is predominantly modern: industrial work sites, crowd scenes, images sourced from cell phone videos and TV news. The imagery is transcribed in a visual language that feels painterly and thick, but also swift and lightweight.
Barnes paints with sumptuous restraint, accomplishing much in a few pithy strokes. “Mine are relatively thin paintings with little underpainting and an economy of actual brush marks,” he writes in his artist statement. The past few years have seen Barnes embark further into sparseness. The artist writes that his current industrial landscapes are “liminal spaces that subtly evoke violent change,” populated with puddles, objects and smudges.
These ostensibly pedestrian themes signal deeper feelings. “I’ve been doing a few paintings of just a foot on the ground,” Barnes mused in a 2014 interview. “Why not? I mean that’s pretty interesting to me now, all of a sudden. What’s underneath us.”
Barnes paintings are now on view at GREEN SPACE, the art venue at T.F. Green Airport. His work will also appear in the Northeast edition of New American Paintings, an annual of contemporary painting that prophesies the forthcoming hot and cool, an honor nearly as prestigious as the grant. As a painter with an avowed interest in “bring[ing] the viewer to the threshold of banality or collective anxiety,” Barnes describes both the symptoms and the content of the zeitgeist.
Yet he is not an anxious painter; his compositions are too frugal and tight to register any traces of personal doubt. “I can see in a painting if there’s any hesitation now. I can’t tolerate that much anymore,” he said in a 2014 interview. The simplicity of his work effuses this confidence.
Barnes examines impermanence and uncertainty in his work, making otherwise foreboding scenery confusingly pretty. His concerns are classically existential, pumped with the steroidal fright of mass-mediated life. Barnes has mentioned being captivated by the “generic disaster” imagery of TV news and YouTube videos, sources from which he renders distress calmingly and persuasively.
I can’t pretend Barnes’ work offers emotional resolutions or easy answers — but this makes his technical aptitude all the more appealing. Form and content are inseparable pals in Barnes’ paintings, displaying beauty beyond the romantic, an unease more nuanced than the purely abject. Barnes melds contemplation and confrontation, balancing earthy shadows and browns with syrupy blues or greens. Obliquely but powerfully, Barnes’ paintings remind us that what is underfoot will invariably shift. Wider recognition for a painter this good is frankly overdue.