Seasonally affective

Two young painters exhibit devotion to form
By NICK SCHROEDER  |  March 28, 2014


Honey , Ellie Porta Barnet, 2014, oil on canvas, 24" x 36",
All images courtesy Aucocisco Galleries; Photo: Jay York

Spring may be here, but the true blossoms will have to wait. And so it goes with a pairing at Aucocisco, where the Portland painters Ellie Porta Barnet and Kate Russo show flashes of what’s to come.

Barnet is a young painter, and one, it must be noted, I’d imagine paints with a unique anxiety of influence. Her grandfather is Will Barnet, the massively influential American artist who passed away in 2012, and a figure so prominent one can’t help but think would alter the conditions by which their kin learns the craft.

The younger Barnet paints almost nothing like the elder in style, and only slightly so in content. In “Reconstruction,” this collection of 10 oil canvases, Ellie Porta Barnet merges traditional painting narratives of figure and landscape into vivid, cinematic scenes, noisily guiding the spirits of memory and imagination through visual tropes of cinema, Americana, and personal discovery.

The strongest among them is “Acadia,” a large, gossamer-rich and boldly black concentration of a forest clearing, where several tall trees and shadowy bats are dimly illuminated by an off-focus flame. Barnet coaxes from the image a fine chiaroscuro, blunting the finely lit surfaces and sharpening the grades of everything hush.

At this early stage at least, Barnet’s paintings become more interesting as they drift further away from realism. Her broad and coarsely-applied brushstrokes are one of three distinct formal qualities I see here, and supply some paintings with their brightest splashes of character. With a minimal, attractively clumsy application, they pry open the night skies and tamp out the hillside in “Lessons” (a scene I’d personally find stronger without the too-finely detailed cluster of birds on a cutely tangled, barren tree — like something out of a Tim Burton film). A foreground image of a young woman, her back to the frame and holding a child, might not be an allusive personification of the artist, but the fetishistic symbols of youth figure too prominently in this series for me to think otherwise.

In “Mermaid,” which to some extent echoes “Acadia” in brighter hues, we see another of Barnet’s touches, the ability to render rippling, resplendent light as it appears on other surfaces. The diaphanous web shaped by the promised volume of space between her subject and the pool of water from which she pulls her long red hair is marvelously alive. In other, perhaps more personal paintings, she employs a third, an affectedly staged motif blending American realism with the vocabulary of children’s illustrations — with mixed results at best. “Two Cat Nap” is too distractingly saturated in cranberry-tones to evoke any emotion, while “Honey,” with its juxtaposition of horses both of animal kingdom and child’s swingset variety, feels a little too satisfied with its rhyme.

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