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Suzy Barnard

Kenneth Baker Essay

 

All things depicted in paintings float. People seem to notice this only when a painter fails to give figures a credible illusion of weight, possibly because paintings themselves appear to float in their customary positions on walls.

            Suzy Barnard acknowledged these peculiar facts in the many pictures she made describing ships at anchor in San Francisco Bay. Inestimably massive and distant, their visual definition tuned by fluctuations in atmosphere and time of day, Barnard's ships might look like phantoms even when they recorded persistent observation -- an ambiguity that probably left her uncomfortable as often as not.

            The truthful impression left by many of her more descriptive pictures owes something to the fact that they report Bay views from a shared third floor studio. The loss of that high vantage point with her recent move to a ground floor studio of her own presented an opportunity and a pressure to reapportion the truthfulness of her work from persuasive picturing to the painted object's own aesthetic force.

            Stylistically, this shift meant steering toward abstraction. Pronounced bands of color such as formerly had served to evoke distant vessels began to shed that equivalence, to stand for nothing beyond themselves, other than Barnard's judgment of how best to answer a painting's developing internal needs. 

            The works in the current exhibition track her edging away from description and toward depictions of memories: of things witnessed, of paintings they stimulated, or both. A past painting is best recollected by means of another painting, leading to a thickening of material information that may even feel nostalgic to Barnard at times, but for the viewer gradually turns atmospheres to abstraction.

            Any tentativeness or reluctance we sense in this transition can sensitize us to the difficulty of moving from a more comfortable artistic posture to a less comfortable one, from faithful evocations reliant on imagery to full faith in painting as a generative practice.

         This sort of creative re-positioning gets glossed over or trivialized in the frenzy and glibness typical of today's art scene. In Barnard's recent work we get to see and feel its intimate difficulty.

            Much remains to be said about historical echoes in Barnard's art, reminders of the work of Nicolas de Stael, Raoul Dufy and of provocations found closer to home in the 1950s art of Richard Diebenkorn and Edward Corbett.

             Also inviting analysis, though not compelling it, is the dark fact that the massive tankers and freighters haunting Barnard's painting are markers of a global economic system whose rule we now recognize as ruinous to the world. A final word on this point occurs in a remarkable, politically exercised statement by Corbett from 1951. "As an assertion of human values," he wrote, "art may be the expressive complement of its own social origin... Art can be proof... that specific virtues may grow from vast conglomerates of evil."

                       But painting, as Barnard and many others practice it, has roots even deeper than those of our forebodings. It invites us to savor whatever we can of life and the world of our experience, regardless of our impulses to judge or seek redress

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Kenneth Baker retired in 2015 after 30 years as resident art critic for The San Francisco Chronicle. He is a correspondent for The Art Newspaper, based in San Francisco.  2016

 

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