San Francisco

Jim Barsness

Susan Cummins Gallery

For several years, Jim Barsness has been perfecting the idiosyncratic combination of materials and techniques from which he generates the large, complex drawings that are a major part of his work. With a blue ballpoint pen, he renders gracefully stylized, sometimes cartoony figures on a background of found material (maps, comics, pages from books), which is then collaged onto a canvas support. In the past, the overall mood of these scenes—colored at least in part by the mellow gloom of the bruised-looking palimpsest that acts as a backdrop—has been benign, if sometimes a little loony. The printed surface of text and image, still visible through the light touches of paint Barsness adds to define the elements of his compositions, has often suggested the multiple voices of a kind of dreamy reverie.

When an artist’s work changes abruptly in some way, the experience of this shift in direction can be like an encounter with an enormous pothole in the road. Your head slams into the ceiling of the car, and when you finally manage to collect your wits the scenery whizzing by suddenly seems alarmingly different. Although Barsness’ materials and methods of manipulation continue to be the same, his subject matter has now taken one of these twilight-zone reroutings. Whether this is due to his move to Los Angeles, or is more the result of some inward shift, the mood in the works included in this show is apocalyptically ferocious. Encounters between male and female characters seem savage or combative, rather than playful or amorous. Still, despite the almost pornographic elaboration of anatomical detail in the multiplicity of titillating acts depicted, these images don’t seem to be as much about sex (or even gender-related issues, for that matter) as they are about the disintegration of the social fabric as a whole.

This focus—on a no-holds-barred, culture-wide failure to communicate, and its awful consequences—is pointed to most obviously by Barsness’ choice of subject matter for the central work in the show. In The Tower, 1993, based on Bruegel’s 1563 depiction of the Tower of Babel, Barsness presents us with an immense circular building, silhouetted against a distant horizon. Its multiple levels teem with bizarre couplings between Boschian creatures and limbless torsos, dog-boys and openmouthed girls. The materials that have been used as a ground for this spectacle of frenzied activity alternately recede behind the tower’s ominous architecture and leach through it, adding to the general visual pandemonium.

Some smaller, simpler drawings, executed on old social-studies maps of the boundaries of long-gone European empires, focus on a single encounter or event. In The Tower Guard, 1993, more Boschian creatures flank a woman—naked save a pair of too-big high heels. She marches across the map, her wide-open mouth suggesting either a song or a shout, while an animated pumpkin behind her plays guitar. Yet, even this relatively innocent-looking composition reeks of something ruined, or lost. As difficult as scenes like this are to contemplate, however, they are immensely compelling—in a way that Barsness’ earlier work, though accomplished and handsome, sometimes was not.

Maria Porges