Scott Barber

McKinney Avenue Contemporary/Barry Whistler Gallery

Painter Scott Barber, who died last year of complications following a bone marrow transplant, was recently the subject of two concurrent shows in Dallas. McKinney Avenue Contemporary (known locally as the MAC) presented a survey of works spanning the last decade of his life, while across town, Barry Whistler Gallery exhibited a suite of twenty-six acrylics on paper made between 2003 and 2005.

At the MAC, it was possible to trace Barber’s development through his experimentation with materials to his realization of a refined, idiosyncratic visual language. Works from the 1990s such as Numb Trust I, 1998, are distinguished by systems of amorphous globules that hover somewhere between biomorphic abstractions and deconstructed stills from TV cartoons. In their deceptively simple compositions, such works play a witty game with modernist aesthetics, melding painterly formalism with the flatness of a video screen (Barber’s paintings have at least as much in common with the aesthetics of industrial video imaging as they do with Greenbergian formalism). The old avant-garde here meets contemporary kitsch in a set of observations about the phenomenological differences between looking into pictorial space and looking at a surface. Pursuing such investigations, Barber turned away from traditional oil paint and canvas in favor of synthetics like urethane and polyfiber, ultimately settling on honeycomb aluminum, an impermeable support that emphasizes his primary concentration on surface.

In 2000, Barber began to employ photographic sources for his paintings, particularly images of nebulae and solar flares, and photo-micrographs of cancer cells. By scanning and digitally manipulating these finds—intentionally committing basic Photoshop “errors” in order to flatten out any hint of chiaroscuro—he clothed them in a gorgeous array of false colors and enhanced their contours, finally copying enlarged versions onto aluminum panels. His use of hand-cut stencils and poured colors (coaxed into position with acrylic rollers), allowed Barber to make areas of color appear crisp and impersonal, with only the tiniest textural imperfections betraying the artist’s hand.

When Barber was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2002, he immediately adopted photomicrographs of his own lab work as seeds for new paintings in which the visual accumulation that he had been investigating became linked explicitly to the technological imaging of a deadly disease. Aesthetic concerns tend to pale in the face of threats to one’s own life, yet Barber continued to explore the possibility of reinvesting painting with an authority derived not from endgame posturing, but from heartfelt pathos borne of human experience—together with a keen sense of the possibilities of painting itself. In one untitled work from 2004, he allows the thickness of the urethane paint to form little levees of brilliant yellow that make neighboring areas of gray look violet. Even—or perhaps especially—in works so physically and optically opaque, such juxtapositions impart a startling beauty.

Made during the last months of his life, the acrylic-on-paper works at Barry Whistler Gallery hint at what he might have achieved had he lived longer. Their tendril-like shapes and glowing colors have clear analogues in Barber’s other mature work but are here more direct: no computers or stencils. The compositional mode he employed had by then become intuitive, almost automatic. In the end he seems to have thoroughly absorbed the depthless CRT screen that had been his tool. Conjuring unexpected relationships, rhythms, and harmonies, these last works suggest a fresh start.

Michael Odom