James Barsness at George Adams Gallery

James Barsness, The Temptation of St. Anthony (2010), acrylic and gold leaf on paper mounted on canvas, 11-3/4″ x 10-1/4″; courtesy George Adams Gallery

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On a recent class trip to The Cloisters, not a few of my students found themselves transfixed by The Master of Belmonte’s Saint Michael, a painting from 15th-century Spain. They were especially taken with the creature on which the title figure stands: the Anti-Christ, a slithering mélange of faces, fauna and rotting flesh. This over-the-top visage gave these burgeoning artists pause. The readership of Juxtapoz would love this painting (I was told), even as it was admitted that The Master of Belmonte’s demon was more convincing than any tattoo seen in recent memory. Why, they wondered, was that?

A similar question nags at the work of James Barsness, whose recent collaged-and-painted pictures are on view at George Adams Gallery. Why don’t his jumbles of Biblical portent, Boschian grotesquery and ornamental excess make good on their sources? Barsness is clearly conversant with art history and just as clearly a card. He’s a 21st-century artist, after all. Who’s to blame him for taking equal inspiration from Warner Brothers cartoons and the underground artist S. Clay Wilson?

Would that the resulting images were as elastic as Daffy Duck, as icky as Wilson’s unseemly preoccupations or as convincing as either. Barsness’ work never transcends its stylistic and material variousness; pastichery it remains. Pictorial tics gleaned from illuminated manuscripts, graffiti, Himalayan icons, Duccio and Spanish comic books (slapdash accumulations of which serve as grounds upon which Barsness’ figures are splayed) are paraded about, but not endowed with life.

Fraught subjects like The Temptation of St. Anthony, The Temptation of Jesus In The Desert and, um, Lady With The Pill Box Hat don’t rise above the status of learned goofs. If Barsness’ work proves anything, it’s that enthusiasm isn’t the same thing as faith—which goes some way toward explaining why he remains in the shadow of The Master of Belmonte.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 4, 2011 edition of City Arts.

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