So queried Pablo Picasso in the 1940s. Uttered aloud, it becomes a trick question, answerable only by the one who poses it. For Howard Barnes, that answer may be found in his dynamic, microcosmic use of color, as both the definer and the defined, in 30 paintings currently on view at Miller White Fine Arts.
As one of the second tier of the Washington Color School, Barnes’ aesthetic contribution adds significant depth and dimension to many of the Colorists’ novel concerns, particularly that of representing nature through fields of color. Paul Reed, with whom Barnes studied, is today the only living original member of the Colorists, and the only one of those who, throughout his career, maintained a reliance on nature to inform his work. Reed’s influence on Barnes’ work, both technically and philosophically, is evident, however, Barnes has gone on to break ground with equal innovation and virtuosity.
Barnes’ paintings are living containers, fueling, clarifying and cooling the structure and that which lives within. His impeccable composition and technique meticulously document the vitality of his portraits of land, sea and air in ways that defy typical convention. For him, small things matter, and he assures us of this fact by virtue of the interconnectedness of otherwise divergent figures and forms.
Barnes’ scapes get your attention because they are consistent with our emotional and intuitive associations with nature. Nature is big, bigger than can be contained by human intervention and will fight for balance, with all necessary means at its disposal. Witness the ferocity of a prairie fire or the brutal force of a tsunami. In that Barnes provides color for nature’s portrait, the result is a higher, nobler sentience regarding her unrelenting influence on our lives.
Gently but firmly, Barnes demands that our view of nature be altered. His use of color alludes to the way a camera’s shutter blinks through successively finer lens, orbiting, sharpening and adding critical depth to the piece. There is tension and complexity, given the appearance of rapid movement within fields bordering areas of calm and quiet. Our contemplation and enjoyment of these mesmerizing works will send us forth confident of nature’s inherent harmony, in all its vastness and native peculiarity.
Charles Beaudelaire once said, “Colourists are epic poets.”** The elegance, warmth and introspection of Barnes’ artworks indeed underscore the truth of this statement. Enough said.
*Bruce Chatwin, What Am I Doing Here (Penguin, 1989), pg. 110
**P. E. Charvet, Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Artists (Penguin, 1972), pg. 59