Mill Valley

Jim Barsness

Susan Cummins Gallery

Most of Jim Barsness’ mixed-media paintings (all works 1990) show real people striking attitudes that are both familiar and discrepant. We see the artist’s wife and children in the nude, full-length and hieratic rather than intimate. Taken from memory, the poses are idealized beyond anecdote, as if, in the course of their domesticity, these people had collectively assumed a double life that their individual features reflect. Their nudity is functional, a way of making what the artist calls “indelible character.” Looking at them, the discrepancies one recognizes relate to art history (scads of quotes from Renaissance examples obtain), but more so to art’s way of reminding us of how a pervasive grace may arise—and linger touchingly, illogically—in the most ordinary circumstances.

Barsness incises his figures’ contours with dark ballpoint blues on unstretched cloth often partially covered with collaged sheets of his son’s drawings or pages from discarded comic books. The dim brown tone and heft of rumpled canvas or tarp tacked to the wall is self-evident; less so the gravity of the figures depicted there. The paintings have a double aspect of size: the plain, wide expanse of the cloth and the heraldic scale of the image, often set off by an inner border of gold leaf. (For skin tones, Barsness uses burnished gold or silver leaf, or else white paint like scoured porcelain.) The zappy marker-pen drawings and irregularly divided comic-book pages bring texture, perspective, and bright colors to an otherwise pallid scrim. Another perspectival device is that of a recurring ellipse—the foreshortened oval of a goblet, saucer, or tabletop—affixed to a cushion of air.

The ballpoint’s thin, reiterative contour strokes pool up slowly, a process that goes both with and against the nature of the tool. Ballpoint pens are designed for speed and fluency on paper, but Barsness pits them against the rough canvas weave (“I find that images respond to the physical difficulty of making them,” he says). Then again, ballpoint ink oxidizes, leaving an iridescence like that of a grease puddle on a dirt road, a deep dazzle. If the blue ink sidles up to gold leaf in a sweet reprise of 14th-century spiritual glamour, it’s no accident. Barsness is after exactly that passage from one human affirmation to the next.

Partly because the figures, like the surfaces they inhabit, are patchwork inventions, they can look interchangeably noble and a little dumb. Sometimes it’s as if the compressions of Old-Master contour had sprouted a self-caricature at the extremities. There are clunky-cum-enigmatic hand gestures and smiles that verge on the intense inane. Barsness has chosen the far-flung masters of his ideal, and of the grotesque as well, carefully; a thick, tuberous nose memorized from Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks turns up repeatedly transplanted onto each member of a family circle. Likewise, spread huge across In Memory of the American Empire’s laminated funny papers, an isolated woman’s face wears an exaggerated Mona Lisa overbite. In From 1 to 100, a frieze of women and children takes on a sportive, bumptious cast, like Pieter Brueghel’s closely choreographed gnomes. Two other canvases hold paste-up accumulations of pure caricature: rows of torn paper sheets—one set from a book of art criticism, the other of coffeehouse tabs—on which Barsness doodled heads while riding the New York subway; these represent a canny way of converting busywork to artistic generosity.

Colliding kinds of recycled representation intimate a world in which such normally disassociated modes are simultaneous revelations. Which sign is more accurate, the classically proportioned rendering or the juvenile smear? And how does Barsness’ ennobling vision equate with boyhood themes bodied forth in a jack-o’-lantern, a castle, arithmetic, superheroes, firepower? The simultaneity slows the viewer’s contemplation so as to heighten it; you see the layers of reality as they are—jumbled yet contiguous, and no less exalting for their commonplace deadpan quirks.

Bill Berkson