A sticky, spiraling tongue forages for termites or ants. It’s lunchtime, but only words fill this anomaly’s lizardly belly. Like many of the beasts within David Barnett’s bizarro worlds, this one has a real-looking face, but that’s where verisimilitude ends and the theater (or circus) of the absurd begins. In “Prototype #6″ (2015), a 2-legged quadruped’s head plays straight man to its whacky body. What we have here is a visual quartet made up of voices that sound like Hieronymus Bosch, Wangechi Mutu, R2-D2, and Woody Allen, if that ensemble knew how to sing and if we could see their song.
With the sculpted and scissored images of the Dada artist, Hannah Höch, in mind, I visited David Barnett’s studio. Perhaps it was the joy of seeing contemporary art that could have fit comfortably within the Dadaglobe Reconstructed exhibition (June 12 – September 18, 2016) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, that opened my eyes so widely to Barnett’s magic. I had seen the Dada show earlier in the day, and I left the museum wanting more. Well, I got more. And then some. (A newly opened exhibition of Barnett’s sculptures and collages will be on display at the George Billis Gallery in Chelsea, Manhattan, through October 1.)
Barnett often centers his people or creatures in his compositions and cobbles together wildly disparate items for his models’ bold wardrobes, mixing animal, human, and mechanical parts, as in “Creature of an Unknown Species” (2015), which features both the exterior and interior of the figure.
Exterior: She flaunts a uniquely specific costume. No wardrobe malfunction; Barnett intentionally leaves his subject’s breasts and a good part of her canine hind legs exposed, while draping her hips in a short skirt, and feathering her upper arm. Her head is capped by great big dog ears above her brown button eyes, while a fragmented Italian landscape morphs into a one-of-a-kind headdress. He fashions a bracelet out of three-dimensional found objects and places it just above her wrist. And he tattoos a washer and screw onto her bare shoulder. Barnett dresses his creatures for the occasion, leaving it to us to figure out what the occasion is.
Interior: He delineates the bones and arteries of his goddess’ hand, her ribs, and the internal workings of her waist. He replaces her neck with hardware.
He is a mechanic. He is a surgeon. He is a fashion designer. She is beautiful and grotesque. She is seductive and repulsive. She is delicate, sleek, and scary. Barnett’s hybrid found her mojo by finding herself in other peoples’ dreams and nightmares . . . all at once.
This robotic Tinkerbell is the center of her universe, and for maximum regal effect, the artist pedestals his goddess within symmetry and near symmetry. Her ears and eyes, and the decorative arch above her head, establish the tightly regulated, quasi-religious structure of the composition. But it is the subtle and not-so-subtle surprises that give this image life. The left and right sides of the flowery base on which she stands differ greatly, as do the bordering columns and the cascading drapery that soften the top corners. Even the ephemera and inscriptions (offsprings of the Surrealists’ automatic writing?) marked into the off-white wall or air around this creature of an unknown species contribute toward keeping its mostly stable construction animated.
In “Marionette,” a poignant head crowns a steely, spindly body, with typewriter components and vintage gauges replacing flesh and bone. Here, a niche is bordered by columns of metal rulers, their intricately detailed grid and concentrated numbers and letters weighing heavy against the puppet’s strings. Throughout, curved and straight lines embody the sacred grace of the Renaissance simultaneously with the discarded mechanics of industry.
Fragments pieced unpredictably together in Barnett’s hybrids seldom match. This artist’s universe includes multiple worlds, and he gracefully juggles them. There are the worlds of anatomy, botany, zoology, technology, and typography. In his brilliant, masterfully crafted sculptures of airships, he incorporates elements that run the gamut from firm to fossilized, found to handmade.
Pragmatically, Barnett’s planes don’t make sense, no less fly. Artistically, however, his images and objects soar because he sets up his own (absurd) worldview, and he remains true to that. Before he builds his constructions, Barnett diagrams them on paper. He calls his blueprint drawings “road maps” for his “journeys.” About these drawings, the artist says: “It doesn’t mean I won’t take a few detours, but they help keep me on track.”
Contradictions and incongruities splinter and merge into the rhythm of Barnett’s disconnected realities. The tour de force, “Judgement Day” (2015), represents a case in point. The man in the red cap looms ominously above his town of dollhouses and walk-ups. It’s a busy, noisy town. No cars or flying machines, but it’s loaded with visual conversations ranging from history and architecture to costume, theater, and religion. Careful where you step, big guy. Might crush something precious. Like tradition.
Art history buzzes around the way-too-big man’s head. Raphael lives down the street. If the Dadaists wanted to burn down the museums, Barnett would blow out the flames. In “Judgement Day,” the glories of Renaissance painting register as a counterpoint to the disarray; look at his protagonist’s sidelong glance toward the cropped portrait whispering in his right ear. Meanwhile, in his other ear, Giotto’s celestial messengers divulge the secrets of the universe. But the man in the red cap can’t decipher their mosquito mannas. He doesn’t buy that they are angels; he is about to swat them away.
On the right, one of the cherubs has drifted from the flock and found a sympathetic listener. The two ethereal beings share a tender moment. (They are pieced together from several Old Master paintings.) The pair is as much (rarified) air as substance, as many tender moments are.
The literal-minded among us may ask: Where does the big, skeptical man sleep? Who tailors his fancy outfits? And what about transportation? Does this man walk everywhere on his scrawny legs, no matter how far his destination may be? Thank goodness for his cane.
The red-capped dandy takes his plight in stride, with poetic license flying alongside. Here, life is asymmetrical, at best. Like the lizardly “Prototype #6,” nothing matches for the gigantic stranger in this strange, strange land. The two sides of his cap differ, as do the two sides of his cloak and sleeves, the size of his hands, the shape and shadows of his eye sockets, and his cock-eyed nose. Even the two drapery clusters on the proscenium arch above reinvent themselves.
And yet, all looks uncannily “right.” That’s because David Barnett has a nuts-and-bolts command, literally and figuratively, of his craft. An exquisite colorist and designer, no one paints or designs with paper, text, glue, and an X-Acto blade better. He weaves and finesses warm with cool and figure with ground like a cardsharp shuffles cards. He can bring mystery and space to the flat, simple plane of a wall. Like Bosch, he can make the most outlandish of juxtapositions look believable; like Hannah Höch and Wangechi Mutu, he can be creepy and dark and brilliant; like John Stewart, Woody Allen, and Goya, he can be a social/political observer; like all three of them, he can be flat-out funny.
That said, I can’t think of anyone else’s work like his. David Barnett is an original.
David Barnett continues at George Billis Gallery (525 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 1.