“In the Studio,” by Nancy Morgan Barnes Photos by Kevin Johnson

“In the Studio” is a sort of self-portrait of the artist Nancy Morgan Barnes looking over her shoulder at her husband, Robert Barnes, while he reads a newspaper and simultaneously watches football on a small television. The room is crammed with painting supplies, chairs, wall pieces (including a mounted buck’s head and a giant bunny mask) and, set on a table, a Cezanne-like skull.

It’s not that the skull looks like Cezanne (at least as far as we know), but that it is painted in the style of Cezanne. And that is no mean feat. Cezanne might be recognizable for leaving parts of his canvases untouched by his brush, but where there was paint, it was dense in terms of color, light and texture.

Such richness is the norm for Barnes and her husband, Robert Barnes, whom I also consider one of the most complex painters in Maine. His name might not be a household one yet, but for painting fans and practitioners, it should be.

It’s only over the past few years that we have come to see Nancy’s work more often in shows throughout the state. Her success, however, is her own. Few other painters can build up a surface like she can. Fewer still can set up a mise-en-scene like she can. With a flick of the wrist, it seems, she can make us excited about this or that narrative, as evidenced by “Tall Tales & Short Stories,” up at Greenhut Galleries through the end of the month.

But are they really stories? A few seem to be fables and fairy tales. They feel recognizable. In the 25-by-28-inch “The Passenger,” a tortoise turns his head to chat with a bird on his back. We should know this one, right? Yet in the background, we see a white horse racing alongside a steaming (though trackless) locomotive. The smoke is echoed by a fire further in the background. Is the tortoise the subject or the narrator of the tale?

In “On the Edge of Town,” a wolf stands on a street, wet from rain, near a truck stop to the left with train control lights to the right. Standing in the direction of a tornado in the distance, the wolf seems to be considering taking shelter by the truck stop, although his glance goes lower and farther to the left than we could possibly see. What is he looking at? Thinking about? Or is it that the wolf sees a person, a more direct threat to him than the oncoming storm?

“Top of the Hill,” by Nancy Morgan Barnes

Sometimes Barnes’ anecdote-like scenes exude metaphorical wit, such as her “Top of the Hill.” Here, we see four figures, an almost comically guilty (“Who, me?”) bear with a pair of dragonflies. An elegantly wary deer stands on the top of the berm behind them. And in the far distant sky, we see a blimp pointing up, about to leave the picture frame. Who is on the top of the hill? Is the bear the hill to the dragonflies? Is the deer at the top? Is it that the bear is the top of the food chain? Or is the distant human presence a wink to the presumptions of people that they lord over nature?

This slyly comedic portrayal of human players sets the stage with the most opaque image of the show, “The Reluctant Hunter.” In this 32-by-28-inch oil, an older, bearded man (no doubt, the painter’s husband) sets out after prey in the dark of night without appearing to have much enthusiasm for the job. He grimaces through a gray beard and under a hunter’s orange cap in the night landscape, his cannon-large gun seeming to weigh many pounds past fair over his shoulder. The moon peeks out through the blue clouds. A shooting star zooms over his head, but we start to doubt this when we follow its tail back to what should probably be the woodsmoke from the chimney of his home. The star could be a flare shot from that spot – a call for help. More likely, it’s the lucky wishes sent his way by his wife, back in bed. It could be anything, but certainly, this is a dreamlike world of painterly make-believe.

While we can’t tell if we’re witnessing bits of fairy tales or Barnes’ life as seen through her painterly fairy tale lens, we do get hints of narratives across paintings. In “Citco Station,” for example, a skunk crosses the road away from the business. (A skunk in the road? What could go wrong?) And in “Insomniac,” we see a window still life with a mouse, spider, bust of Beethoven, and, barely visible through the not-so-clean window, a sliver of the same Citco sign. Maybe they are completely unrelated, but when I saw “Insomniac” after (and next to) “Citco Station,” it struck me the “insomniac” might be the skunk or, even more darkly, a driver who encountered  the poor little guy on the road.

Whatever Barnes was thinking, what matters is what we see. She isn’t making images with a single, simple story. Rather, the narratives are like real life: mysterious and expansive. She invites us to imagine fabled worlds all around us, all while creating some of the best painted surfaces ever made in Maine.

Whatever you make of the narratives, “Tall Tales & Short Stories” by Nancy Morgan Barnes is a masterwork of fables, fiction and fun.

“Citco Station,” by Nancy Morgan Barnes

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