Friday, December 13, 2013
By DANIEL KANY
“Emily Dickinson Poem #1101”
"THE ART OF WILL BARNET"
WHERE: Ogunquit Museum of American Art, 543 Shore Road WHEN: Through Aug. 12 HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
HOW MUCH: $10; $9 for seniors and students; free for children under age 12
INFO: 646-4909; ogunquitmuseum.org
Of course, achieving such graceful clarity means there was nothing inevitable or simple about the process. It means solving all tension within the image's structure. And above all, it means patiently working through every detail.
Cartoonists perform a sort of shorthand in which style is all about legible convention. They draw all hands and all eyes, for example, in a certain way.
Barnet does the painstaking opposite: He takes every hand and every pair of eyes, and gets to know them perfectly. This kind of minimalism requires patience, observational skill and technical talent.
It's the kind of thing that drove the old masters to draw and draw and make study after study.
Barnet studied the masters until he knew them in his bones and ingrained this approach so long that he became one of them. His paintings reveal this. His prints prove this. And his drawings show us why.
While we tend to associate Barnet with elegant lines and classical rhythms, "The Art of Will Barnet" at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art shows off the artist's supreme draftsmanship primarily in the details of descriptive drawing.
Yet we also see how Barnet worked out his compositions by balancing longer lines with details. This kind of relationship is something almost never talked about, because it's virtually impossible to see. But in Barnet's spare and well-ordered world, every seemingly minor change is important.
In "Study for Janitus" (1969), we see a beautiful mature woman in portrait pose. Her body turns so that we see the curve of her left bosom in profile while the lapel line of the right side of her jacket drops straight down -- facing us. Her face turns away from her body in three-quarters pose to her right.
The details of eyes, mouth and face are so stunningly apt that we can't doubt their accuracy. Yet they are offset by the elevated bun on the back of her head, and every line in the drawing is part of a complex and perfectly resolved balance.
The irony is that the irony is invisible. There should be a tension between the buxom volume of her body and the insistent flatness of the lines on the drawing's surface. But the tension is utterly resolved. She is a beautiful woman. And this is a beautiful drawing.
Barnet's apparent need to know his subject so well visually is possibly why we see his family again and again. The intimacy, however, puts up no private walls. On the contrary, it allows Barnet to understand his subject and pass that sense of comfortable space on to the viewer.
One of the pieces in the show seems to cut to the quick of Barnet's plaintive attitude toward his subjects -- "The Spider Sewed at Night." While the title ties the piece to an Emily Dickinson poem, the piece has a patient-Penelope-waiting-for-Odysseus feel that might be the single most important quality of Barnet's work through the decades: The palpable longing of a woman for her lover's return.
The figure gazes out the night window with her back to us. The moon is in the sky. The spider web is apparent as a compositional device -- a curve in the window balancing the figure -- but we might not recognize it if not for the title.
While waiting for Odysseus to return, Penelope wove at her loom during the day and undid the work at night in order to keep at bay her suitors, who were forcing her to take a husband on her completion of the shroud.
(Continued on page 2)