New York

Clive Barker

Bess Cutler Gallery

Clearly, Clive Barker knows what it is to wake up screaming. In this jam-packed fun-house of a show, featuring the myriad products of his hell-raising imagination (prints, posters, drawings, watercolors, comic books, collected first editions of his blood-and-guts novels), the popular horror meister explored a state of angst in which half-human hedonists satisfy monstrous carnal appetites, fueled by a fascination with their own corporeal mutilations.

In Barker’s oeuvre, there’s no redemption except by violence, both for body and soul. Because his images are so flagrantly outrageous, at first you think he’s got to be kidding and you laugh; then you see he’s deeply serious, and this makes his work, and its tabloid appeal outside the art world, more difficult to shrug off as mere entertainment. Borrowing heavily, in both composition and technique, from Francisco Goya, and to varying degrees from William Blake, Edvard Munch, and perhaps Salvador Dalí, Barker’s canvases are a frenzied vision of sexual apocalypse. His pensive figures, both human and semihuman, are either saddened men and lascivious women, neutered skeletons, or mutated creatures with reptilian/insectlike bodies whose faces resemble Jabba the Hut.

However strange the territory, Barker relies heavily on the familiar. Blue Vision, 1993, is a netherworldly parody of van Gogh’s Starry Night. Here, a cobra’s body hangs coiled in the midnight sky like an intestinal UFO. Topped by a gargantuan claw with a cyclopean eye at its center, the snake’s lower end is anchored by a grim-lipped hairless head in which the eyes have been swallowed by their own sockets. It’s art history 101 meshed with heavy metal.

No matter how often Barker resorts to such hybrid arrangements of body parts and art, the focus is almost always on genitalia. Much of the work is given to an ultimately fatal autoeroticism, but two of the more nightmarish paintings are irrefutably arousing. Sanborn in Adolescence and Sanborn in Middle Age (both 1993) tell the story of a dimpled, wall-eyed skinhead coming of age at the gates of Hell. Sanborn has a greenish cast to him, and a certain naïveté, equally confused by his awakening sexuality and happy to make its weird acquaintance. In the second painting, more confident and still nonplussed, Sanborn’s little tail has become a huge iguana’s, all the better to entwine a woman, whom he fucks with impish pleasure in a silent forest. Her head is completely bandaged, blinding her to his less-sightly characteristics while she devours his other physical gifts.

Barker mixes paint as if he were tending a witch’s brew. His colors generally have a ghoulish, dark, broken-blood-vessel tone. The Believer, 1993, is one exception. Here, on a pale ocher ground, a spidery humanoid—its arms akimbo and its feet spread wide—squats from a web spun by a spiky brown eye, trapped, like the others, in a circumstance he can’t explain or escape.

Part of Barker’s perverse appeal, as painter, filmmaker, and novelist, comes from his enthusiasm for pushing a fevered imagination to the limit. These paintings perfectly embody the perverse excitement of realizing one’s own worst fears, trapped in a beauty-and-the-beast-within tradition that Barker, in a mordantly ambiguous way, blithely continues.

Linda Yablonsky