Robert Barbee

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There are two striking elements in Robert Barbee's paintings - his indebtedness to Modernism and the related sense of control that permeates all of his work. In the modernist spirit, Barbee's paintings are often about painting. He painted palettes and brushes, included older works within newer ones and portrayed himself as the artist. There are also works that in true formalist fashion address issues of form, line and color.

In many respects, Barbee's paintings survey much of the first half of twentieth century art history. Such a progression might suggest that he worked through lessons of Modernism. However, there is neither a clear path from one artist to the next nor is an obvious conclusion drawn. Perhaps Barbee's aim was different.

Barbee took from Modernism a particular assemblage of influences, which are quite visible in his work. His style leans heavily towards realism though he looks to the abstraction of Paul Cezanne in his landscapes and Pablo Picasso in his still life, even mixing in a bit of the surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico. He borrowed little from pure abstraction, although arguably the architectural precision of Barbee's paintings might well have been influenced by Piet Mondrian. However, he most notably took nothing from expressionism, demonstrating that the trends of Modernism that worked best for him were those that embodied some measure of control over the canvas.

This sense of control is the second major characteristic of Barbee's paintings and is most evident in his draftsmanship. Linearity marks his style as precise, hard lines structure - and occasionally dominate - his paintings. Barbee's spare, seemingly serene interior scenes especially reflect this quality. Often these lines appear to anchor the image to the canvas. In some of his city scapes and beach scenes his style mimics the technique of woodblock prints. Though the resulting image is more textured than the stark spaces, the content remains subjected to the bold, thick strokes.

Barbee's landscapes are by far the least linear of all of his work, both the early images which are truly Cezanne-esque and the landscapes painted late in his career. However, a closer look, particularly of the later paintings, reveals the careful, exacting tendency that marks Barbee's style.

Despite this veneer of control, many of the paintings contain something off kilter, some peculiarity that disrupts the image's apparent unity. These often uncanny elements affect a slightly disturbed mood that undermines the stillness depicted in Barbee's spaces. Sometimes it is quite subtle as in Self Portrait - Reflected where the nude model's hips are wider than is proportionate to her body. Yet these details grow increasingly prominent. In Woman, where the paintings double as windows, a single palette placed high on the wall appears to be suspended there, almost floating. In Red Room a separate, fragmented canvas dominates the painting. It bisects the studio and refuses a view of both the easel and the artist.

How do these fit with the overall realism and rationalism of Barbee's style? The most immediate conclusion that one might draw from these recurring oddities is that they represent a release from an otherwise controlled style. Yet these peculiarities are just as studied as the lines of the house or the rigidity of the figures. In their deliberateness and control they resist being classified as images of the unconscious. Was Barbee imagining a breaking away from control? Are they simply intended to be puzzling? Or are they meant to make the viewer consider the paintings more closely and carefully?

How do these elements fit with the role that Modernism plays in Barbee's work? Is it possible to read Barbee's paintings as commenting, as opposed to relying, on modernism? Blue Still Life makes clear reference to Picasso's round still lifes but Barbee's image has depth and includes features that one might read as sarcasm, notably a flat, sky blue background and taxidermy. Yet the commentary does not seem so severe and one doubts that Barbee is truly criticizing Picasso. If Barbee is commenting on Modernism it is not to break with it.

Barbee taught studio art at the University for thirty two years and a large part of the exhibited work comes out of this period and environment. The result is a long running sampling of his Modernist predecessors. Barbee's discussion is never fully a condemnation nor is it a true endorsement. Ultimately however, despite their clear visual relationship, Barbee's paintings are less directly about Modernism and instead read simply as musings on the act of painting.


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