The imaginative painters make for a lively duet.
By Daniel Kany
The paintings of Nancy Morgan Barnes and William Irvine make for a lively pairing. Irvine’s works are bright and seemingly simple coastal landscapes painted with a bold hand and almost cartoonish clarity. Barnes’ landscapes could pass for fairytale illustrations that may have taken a darkly wrong turn, sometimes literally.
Barnes’ scenes often feature woodland creatures out of place on a road, directly or indirectly threatened or threatening. A skunk saunters along a night highway with a truck speeding by: We know too well what is likely to happen. But we have to make that leap. Barnes challenges us to confront our own dark sensibilities. A speeding rabbit stretches out before us with a looming bear close behind. We are so caught up in the bunny’s plight that we almost don’t realize this takes place in a Walmart parking lot. It’s not just the cottontail who has to watch out.
Despite her proclivity for setting up horror stories for cute little woodland creatures, Barnes has a sympathetic countenance throughout her work. One scene is simply a forest floor from the perspective of a tiny tortoise. And it is this sense of subjectivity that helps Barnes lend her empathy to viewers.
A “Neglected Garden” teems with life. There is no obvious narrative other than the oxymoronic equation in which the garden grows wildly: Failed in its function, it thrives as a place of life. And yet, even here, Barnes maintains a hallucinatory oddness to her pulsing hand. Unlike the even or singular view of a photograph, the Searsport painter’s scenes pop into focus all over the place: a snail, a salamander, a flower, a cardinal and dozens of others – each rendered as though the center of its own image, part memory, part story, part dream.
Irvine’s small paintings of fishing families’ houses have an oddly similar feel. They appear as glimpsed images along the road that the artist cannot help but supply with his own imagined backstory. His added imagination is what pushes the paintings past basic observation or memory. His reductive rendering style adds a pulse to the characters as though they must be part of some offbeat narrative. A woman stands in her hut-like house’s door with a cherry blossom bouquet in her hand, maybe a parting gift or a table decoration for a romantic dinner? A girl plays with a boat, possibly with professional aspirations of her own. A Breton woman waits in her door for the catch to be unloaded, and it looks like she has news for her partner.
The jocular bounce of Irvine’s sense of narrative combined with a feel for life’s regular grit makes for an excellent match with Barnes’ quirky visual poems. While Barnes’ heavily worked and re-worked surfaces have a sense of stylistic realism, as opposed to Irvine’s indefatigably efficient frosting-thick rendering, both quietly employ a highly attuned and sophisticated sense of design.
Irvine shows this off in some of his more straightforward landscape works with unapologetic power, such as “Into the Fog,” which features a sailboat at the moment the forward vertical line of the triangular sail aligns with a fogbank. Half the image is clear while half is in cloud. It cuts like a knife.
The more we look, the more we see Irvine’s imagination is a seasoned one. When a lobster boat steams into fog, we begin to lose sight of it as a vessel and see the boat and its wake tail blended into a single form, a way to recognize something we might barely see. And the boat is heading into the unknown.
Barnes’ most exciting painting makes us doubt ourselves. We see a rather banal highway view of an oil truck zooming along in the lane next to us. (It’s a high-focus image and we can even make out the red pickup in which we’re driving reflected in the rig’s shiny back.) Just entering the image as a blur is what looks like an alpaca in its disastrous last moments after running onto a Portland highway. The power of the painting is to solidly force us into a driver’s role rather than taking the gauzier perspective of the animal. This shifts the action away from the impending tragedy toward a personal sense of danger: Something crazy involving an oil truck is about to happen at high speed right in front of us.
What we see in both of these painters is an ability to shift between modes, in part because of their formidable abilities to make the paint do exciting things on the canvas. Barnes’ descriptive abilities allow her to play with narrative nuance. Irvine’s ability to keep the quality of the paint out in front allows him to shift between nature-worshipping seascapes (image Marin’s cubist intelligence with Homer’s respect for the elements) and imagined narratives with just enough salt to keep them from ever being quaint. Barnes shifts from quirky fairytale settings to subjective perspective gymnastics.
With their disjointed feints toward cute, Barnes and Irvine make for an odd combination, but whatever the effect on each other, they are both fun and quirky first-rate painters.
“THE FINALE: JEFF WOODBURY: PATHWAYS”
Elsewhere in Portland, Vestibule 594 is featuring the works of South Portland artist Jeff Woodbury. “Pathways” is in fact one of the most handsome shows in Portland. It features a suite of prints made from actual beetle runes (their divot pathways just under the bark of trees) and a group of accompanying black and white drawings on multiple layers of mylar of tree branches as well as some of Woodbury’s cautiously cut maps in which he removes all but the roads with a razor. The lines of the tree branches, beetle paths and folded, excavated maps make for a scintillating show that is handsome and challenging.
Vestibule 594 is a side project that Greenhut Galleries Manager Jessica McCarthy opened on Congress Street in 2013. This month’s show is unfortunately the last of dozens of excellent shows presented by the diminutive gallery, because the lease is up and the space is being taken. It will be missed.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: