If Grant Barnhart’s previous show here featured symbols of American glory – cowboys, preening roosters and football players – ambivalence about his subject matter came through in his use of crisply rendered red, white and blue figures juxtaposed against Technicolor sprays and drips. For his current exhibit Barnhart continues to use contrast, this time as a means to showcase weight and weightlessness – or perhaps more precisely, sense and senselessness, especially as they pertain to creating, transformation and spectatorship.
“Conception in Parts” is a painted portrait of an eroded bust of Emperor Lucius Aurelius Commodus, whose egomaniacal reign from 180 to 192 AD marked the end of Rome’s political stability and the beginning of the Empire’s fall. Barnhart pairs his portrait with “Isle of Man,” a painting of an inflatable blue gorilla sporting the American flag. Barnhart spied the floating ‘monument’ atop a storage facility where it served as an advertisement for empty space. “As large as it is,” notes Gallery owner Charlie Kitchings, “one prick of a pin and it’s all over.” Seen in this light, the pair of paintings function as the fragile manifestations of empires full of hot air.
History, transformation, and the passage of time are treated just as memorably with the more modest means of snow. In “Ambitious Undertones” Barnhart depicts a grinning snowman decorated with painted-on musculature. “It’s a painting about self acceptance,” says Barnhart. “Accepting yourself as you are, or making the necessary changes to obtain happiness.” “Hey Carl I think Rodney’s Had Some Work Done” (ceramic, wood, acrylic paint) shows three similarly sized snowballs, one atop the other. The carrot nose planted in the bottom ball appears long and upwardly curling, that in the middle a placid appendage, and finally on top, as a trim orange snout. Left to nature, his alterations would be doomed to melt. As synthetic products their transformation is more or less enduring.
Balls figure heavily in Barnhart’s body of current work, where they take on both literal and figurative weight. In the diptych “Don’t Let Me Down,” a large canvas dissected by a large black X is divided into two sections. On the left a grimacing body builder, bulging biceps executed in swirls of salmon pink paint, grasps a medicine ball. To the right is a detail of the onlookers that surround him. Weight in this case is equally distributed between the burden of the ball and the stares of bystanders, most armed with photographic equipment. Similarly, in “Mastiff on Trial” a man strains to lift a heavy ball before a seated crowd armed with billy clubs. The demands of performance – or creation – are clearly not for the fainthearted.
“Curiously Optimistic,” a near-life-size paint and fiberglass sculpture of a Cyclops, is modeled after Barnhart’s own body. It shows a man struggling to move a large rock. The sculpture suggests the myth of Sisyphus – the familiar Greek myth of a former king doomed to push a boulder to the crest of a hill only to forever see it roll back to the bottom. The French author Albert Camus gave the story a slightly more optimistic twist, concluding that man must find gratification in the struggle itself – in spite of its senseless and repetitive nature.
“Precious Broken Elastic,” one of the smallest paintings in the show, but perhaps the most memorable for the sheer beauty of its banality, is that of a woman seen at knee level as she awkwardly steps into a pair of plain pink panties. By dint of a unique vision, and no small amount of perseverance, Barnhart gives weight to otherwise weightless subject, matter making even the simplest actions and objects plainly gratifying.