'THE REALLY REALLY DARK PARTS' Oil on panel by Hannah Barnes, 20" x 15", 2009.
Wharf Street is quickly becoming a hotbed for the esoterically minded. Building on early pioneers such as clothier Rogues Gallery and smart seafood at Street and Company, the original waterfront is being bolstered with the recent opening of Brook There, Brook DeLorme's sustainable-clothing design studio and shop, and 37-A Gallery, opened in a conjoined space. A project started by DeLorme and Daniel Pepice, 37-A intends to showcase a roster of challenging emerging and mid-career artists. The space is gorgeous, dating from the mid-19th century, cobblestones leading into a freshly varnished wide hardwood floor, exposed brick, and pristine new white walls. The back room of the gallery displays the original seawall. The door between DeLorme's studio/shop and the gallery is left open, so visitors hear the hum of sewing machines while perusing the artwork.
The first show in the new 37-A space opened in December, with new paintings and drawings by Hannah Barnes, a graduate of Maine College of Art and Rutgers University. Eleven oil paintings on panel flank a dominating site-specific wall painting in the gallery, and a back room hosts several smaller watercolors on paper, displayed casually on a table.
While it is fun to see the artist tackle a range of scale and mediums in the exhibit, the painter is clearly in her element working with the tactile and malleable nature of oil paint, which lends itself to the intuitive additive and reductive process so evident in Barnes's work. She lets the image become itself, as though with each brushstroke she is unveiling an image that always existed. Initial drawings in a thin red or black line are left in the foreground or pushed behind layers of white, and forms are discovered through layering and wiping away. The resulting effect is of images that seem to be familiar, residing in memory, but are elusive in their conjuring of anything specific.
Barnes's paintings are very aware of the history of modernist abstraction, though filtered through a specifically contemporary naiveté. She employs a muted Gustonian palette of white, gray, red, and black, with occasional irreverent Post-It yellows and sea-foam greens. Her forms also reference Guston's later cartoon-ish works, and expressionistic marks borrowed from Miro or Klee bolt through the canvases. What is specifically Barnes, however, is a sophisticated straddling of representational or figurative forms and abstract expression. The works resist any pure reading but evoke undeniable sensations of place; a basement with a single dangling fluorescent bulb, or a small apartment with a window looking out at the street at two in the morning, blue light interrupting blue darkness.
Some paintings go so far as to delineate ground, providing perspective, but denying the objective with bulbous zoomorphic forms that are void of life, looking more like industrial waste. Her forms are often fetal or phallic, or perhaps cellular, but definitely referencing something animal. Most of the paintings avoid perspective and rootedness, with forms hovering in thick and layered space, flirting with the edges of the panel, or existing directly on them.
The largest work in the show, a site-specific acrylic, watercolor, and latex wall painting, while formally engaging, reads like a rough draft of her smaller, more developed oils. Sketchy in quality, the work fails to deliver the rich ambience of the smaller paintings, leaving a desire to experience their success at a larger scale.
Annie Larmon can be reached at email@example.com.