NEW HAVEN — The topic for Chris Barnard has always been white supremacy, and the way in which it invades much of our living space in stealth mode. It is not just the external manifestation of racial violence that floods the daily news, but rather the process through which structures of power associated with whiteness become embedded in the cultural imagination, the rule of the law, and ultimately, what is seen as historical truth. This undertaking would have been easier for a filmmaker or the type of artist that actively work with archives and material culture, but how do painters react to white supremacy? What can painting actually do? Hasn’t painting itself been an institution of exclusion and privilege?
While gazing into Barnard’s new paintings from his exhibition Root Rot on show at Fred Giampietro gallery in New Haven, one can’t help thinking about the kind of art hanging nearby. The Yale University Art Gallery, on the very same street, is a quintessential institution of American whiteness, rich in examples of depictions of the American landscape as a barren empty land waiting to be conquered by white settlers, as portrayed by several monumental works of Alfred Bierstadt owned by the university. There is also the neighboring exhibition Britain in the World, on at the Yale Center for British art, that actually highlights the role that art played in Britain’s imperial vision.
Is it precisely these spaces that Barnard is depicting — institutions of privilege. The emphasis in this series is to highlight the role of these spaces in the perpetuation of racial violence in the United States, and these paintings call us to reconsider their supposed neutrality. These places are non-specific, but they are familiar to us: University libraries, courts of law, art institutions, and the kind of monumental spaces that are always associated with wealth and authority. But these are not literal depictions; something is happening in these spaces. They appear to be rotting and decaying, bleeding and transmogrifying. The scenes recreated resemble more a horror-themed video game than a social reality.
Yet there is one place specifically depicted — MoMA, in the work “Acquitted” (2017), which contains two references to racialized violence inside the painting. In the lower background there is a ghostly rendering of the LAPD officers acquitted of assault in the beating of Rodney King in 1991 (the acquittal led to the 1992 LA riots in which 63 people were killed) which was videotaped and subsequently aired throughout the world, raising eyebrows about the treatment of African Americans in the United States. In the foreground there is a rendering of Carl Andre’s “144 Lead Square” (1969), a work of the artist who was acquitted, in 1988, of the murder of his wife, the artist Ana Mendieta.
The references are very effective here, but aren’t they too direct? With the kind of formalism that is symptomatic of contemporary painting and largely dominated by abstraction, we viewers are not used to reading historical references within this kind of painting. Still, the series overall is replete with poetic moments, even when this poetry is a history of violence. Barnard has long been occupied with the question of how a white artist, the beneficiary of privilege, can speak about the race question in America without co-opting it? Is it even possible? His earlier abstract work was in a way very successful in obliquely referencing these issues, but he has taken now upon himself a more difficult challenge.
In Root Rot, there are works such as “White Flight” (2017) and “The Evidence of Things Seen” (2017) where Barnard delivers a powerful message about the erosion of American institutions, but in other works the plot is not as clear. There seems to be a lot of experimentation. The viewpoint he expresses here is far beyond aesthetics: Barnard cites in his artist’s statement the influence of American scholars such as Craig Steven Wilder and his Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, or the now classic, The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. The artist isn’t only seeking to react, but to understand, and in this understanding also lies much self-criticism, irony, empathy, and perhaps dialogue.
As Chris Barnard rightly notes in his statement, the politics of painting are very difficult:
What role does painting play in the face of concrete social crises? How can my paintings respectfully incorporate — rather than exploit — relevant and thought-provoking content and imagery? What does it mean to think about racism, dehumanization, injustice, etc., and then to paint such pictures, and in particular as a straight, white man?
These questions seem now more relevant than ever in America (think about the Whitney Biennial), but as Barnard has intelligently demonstrated, they are neither new nor easily answerable. To tackle them from the very root would indeed mean to challenge all of the institutions on which white privilege rests, which is alas, the foundations of the United States.