PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — In person, Hannah Barrett’s smart and witty paintings deliver exceedingly in light and color. Barrett, like the celebrated painter Remedios Varos, builds science-fiction worlds in jewel-like paint. I also see in these works the flat spaces of 1960s cartoons.
The works on view in Barrett’s current exhibition at Schoolhouse Gallery are populated by “monsters” — invented creatures of all kinds — that arrived via the artist’s imagination. Is it possible that demons and otherworldly creatures communicate through our dreams and daydreams? Are these monsters sacred guardian spirits or manifestation demons who lock themselves in their chambers to write books? (A “manifestation demon” is a spirit who helps you get things done on command.) Do these owl-faced creatures with clawed feet and hands visit an intergalactic Star Wars bar scene, where the scariest-looking ones turn out to be the most civil and kind? Barrett’s work definitely alludes to these mysteries.
In “Far Away” (2022), we visit a blue and white Wedgewood world in which the ruffled and bowed creature with fin-like ears, sporting a chevron-patterned suit, keeps records, possibly for ships in the yellow background. “Inspo” and “One Ring” again depict protagonists in a bureaucratic space. The former creature, bearing facial hair, a tie, and other masculine markers that contrast with their purple banana curls, sits amid a wall of ledgers. I imagine that the latter — green skinned, furry chinned, bouffant haired, and femme dressed — keeps accounts, efficiently answering a 20th-century telephone after a single ring.
Other settings are more fantastical: In the painting “Folly” (2020), an ambigendered straw person seemingly out of a blue and green Land of Oz bears a resemblance to the tarot card of The Fool; and in the “Dark House,” a character wearing a strawberry bib seems to be in an austere palace.
Barrett’s monsters subvert the gender binary by combining masculine dandy finery with high femme elements; the paintings serve up a new representation of the nonbinary (as in both “not subscribing to binaries” and “my gender is none of your business”). Symbols point to hidden meanings: In “Rare Books” (2023), words are spelled backwards (nova, sol), like secret messages. This sense is underscored by Barrett’s juxtaposition of the fanciful creatures with the trappings of bureaucracy or state institutions. They represent a contingent of queer librarians, archivists, and historians who hide in plain sight.
For all who see themselves in Barrett’s subjects, the strange, colorful spaces they inhabit — an otherworldly take on institutional workplaces — create the kind of magic that offers solace to gender-nonconforming people and anyone, earthly or intergalactic, who is in search of a place to belong.
Hannah Barrett continues at Schoolhouse Gallery (494 Commercial Street, Provincetown, Massachusetts) through August 9. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.