By Rudolph Behar
The object on the left, made by a college student, rests on the well trimmed lawn of a local campus, but its near relatives can be found in almost any art museum in the country and particularly in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.
The sculptor shown working on the portrait bust is Jim Barnhill, a local artist of exceptional skill. Though Barnhill has won some prizes and has had his work purchased by large corporations, its unlikely that the bust will appear in local museums.
The student-artist who made the two-and-a-half foot cement cube probably could not choose to create a work like the one under Barnhill’s hand. He or she would need formidable talents of observation and physical coordination, and years of never-ending dedicated practice.
Barnhill could easily make objects like the cube if he wanted to.
In the last 10 years I have found the cube’s relatives in every local and nationally famous museum I’ve entered: a pile of rocks on the floor; a pair of birdnest-capped telephone poles leaning against the museum wall; a rectangular stainless steel basket some four feet high standing on industrial casters, the basket itself filled with split. uniformly grained basaltic rocks; two round hay bales with a weathered board lying across them; lengths of frayed rope hanging from a bar near the museum’s ceiling - I arbitrarily stop here in a list that could extend down this column and across the next.
No, I don’t mean to denigrate the student’s cube. I actually rather like it, especially placed as it is, not in a museum, but in a location that sharpens its paradoxical existence. Unfortunately, its close proximity to another far less well executed non-figural sculpture tend to trivialize it. It needs to stand alone, like a scientific singularity, where it will be, for people-in-the-know (!) an arresting object, for about 10 seconds.
In fact, the cube, considered only as object, is of little significance. Like many modern works, its art comes more from the audacity of the thing and the light lunacy of its placement that from its encoding the skill and insight of its creator. It and its fellows are not there to gauge our depths, but to engage our conversation. Still, if it is only a quip, it is a quip I like.
Jim Barnhill doesn’t want to make quips. “We’ve all seen these kinds of things in museums, where they attract no attention whatever,” he says. “People walk right by them,” he continues. “I want to make something that people can’t walk by.”
For a while, Barnhill thought to arrest passersby with sheer beauty, and had some success at it, too, as I witnessed with some students at an exhibit ignored the hay bales and gravitated towards a five-by-nine-inch pastel of three tomatoes by Barnhill. These hay bales were the common rectangular variety, one bound and the other unbound, and were titled “Bound and Unbound Hay Bales.” Their “sculptor” had skipped a step though indispensable by centuries of artists, the re-presentation of perception. Good to talk about. Not much to see. But you shoulda seen them tomatoes. (How did Groucho get into this?)
At home, Barnhill keeps a bas relief he made of the Graces, after Botticelli’s “Primavera,” the result of many drawings and studies that indicate how fundamental re-envisioned beauty is for him. But it’s been years since Barnhill decided at an Edvard Munch exhibit that his object “is less beauty than edification,” truth, in a word.
So he has sometimes used his formidable superrealistic skills to portray accidental or accidental-appearing truths, for instance in a painting of a nondescript factory building whose multi-paned sides project shallow but markedly varied reflections of a dull sunlight.
Or in his painting of a crushed Pepsi can on a copy of the American Constitution, both painted with such realism - the light glints crisply off the deformed can, and you read, not a painting of the Constitution, but the Constitution itself - that it’s easy to miss Barnhill’s silent irony at the trashifying of the Constitution by pop culture.
Recently Barnhill sent a letter to the director of the N.C. Museum of Art telling him that he would submit no more work to the museum since once they see that it is figurative it is rejected out of hand. To his credit, the director has promised to look closer next time.
Still, Barnhill knows that he runs a constant risk of being associated with the sentimentalists like Bob Timberlake, that darling of the frame shops. He insists that he’s not doing anything like Timberlake. “For one thing,” he says, “Timberlake works from photographs.”
“So does Ralph Goings,” I point out.
“That’s different,” he says. “Goings is trying to get you to see.”
Indeed, it is different. Timberlake’s vacuum-cleaned pictures calculatedly wring hearts stunned and frightened by an incomprehensible world and starved for a never-existent purity and simplicity. Though one sympathizes with the need of these people, and is daily thumped by the same incomprehensible world and starved for a never-existent purity and simplicity. Though one sympathizes with the need of these people, and is daily thumped by the same incomprehensibility, still, Timberlake does seem to provide a legal version of the downer-popper’s escape. Which way is less healthy in the long run is anyone’s guess.
More to the point is Jim Barnhill’s liking for Andrew Wyeth’s work. I know of one local art teacher - not at my school, let it be said at once - who asks his beginning students if they like Wyeth and who then bullies and browbeats as ignoramuses any poor sophomore who falls into the trap. In fact, just recently one major New York museum - it was the Metropolitan, if I remember correctly - let it be known that it had not shown Wyeth’s “Helga” pictures, not because it couldn’t, but because it wouldn’t, have them. “Helga” simply wasn’t worthy the institution.
I went last summer with a normally wry artist to see the ”Helga” pictures at the Brooklyn Museum, to which they had been exiled, and found myself in a rumpus with my friend, him waving his arms and saying, “It’s Illustration, dammit!”
That’s the same argument that Stravinsky used against Richard Wagner. The work is bad because it’s organized by narrative principles alien to it that violates the integrity of the primary art. The only problem is that Stravinsky is right, about Wagner.
“And I’m not, about Wyeth?” asked my friend.
I didn’t think so. On that basis any representational painter at all can be called an illustrator, many with more justice, Fragonard, for instance, or Watteau. But none of the “Helgas” tell a story in the manner of Jean Baptiste Greuze or Norman Rockwell. I suppose that someone so inclined can talk Wyeth for the frigid stiffness of his tempera “Helgas.”
“All right. But the drawings are really good,” my friend says.
“Yes, the drawings are really good,” Jim Barnhill echoes four months later.
Some question whether representational art in the great tradition can be art at all, any more. Surely the Greeks and even more the Romans had achieved almost everything that could be achieved in the way of beauty and character in portrait sculpture, and the Renaissance greats had exhausted power and monumentality. Finally, people like the 19th Century’s Rude took what slack was left, so the argument goes.
If you’re going to do representation today and still claim to be making real art, you’re going to have to make something like that famous - or is it infamous? - bust of John Kennedy that proves its modernity by superimposing over its classical core a layer of sharpened blobs. Which is to say that you’re going to adopt a modern manner without actually being modern.
Otherwise, what’s left is craft.
Even if that were true, which it is not, craft itself is hardly a thing to be scorned. Craft repeats what is traditional; art uncovers that which has not yet been apprehended but which is fully founded in our natures. The worst case - representational art used up - still and always leaves to artists like Jim Barnhill an area of genuine discovery analogous to the domain in which the great concert pianists and conductors work.
From a deep artistic understanding, scholarly and creative at once, they bring forth distinctive interpretations that require us to experience fully works that have become banal through over familiarity. It’s just the representational artists follow no score written by human beings. Instead, their score is nature and the human body in its infinite variety. And when, like Jim Barnhill, they do their work well, we do not walk past.
Jim Barnhill’s course in these tricky waters keeps him cold and wet, though no less determined for that. I believe he is the most accomplished figurative artist in the area, surely that I know. But because of his choice, he rarely appears among the hay bales and is exiled by the new academicians, the new salonists, to teaching children and the oddly scheduled evening adult class. I wonder if those children and those adults know how fortunate they are.
Rudolph Behar teaches comparative arts at Guilford College.