Seeing Double — An artistic Pairing, Robert Barnes and Nancy Morgan Barnes

Nancy Morgan Barnes, House on the Hill, oil on canvas, 16"x20", 2010 — photo courtesy of the artist

Q. What’s the best part of being a full time, working artist?

NMB — The best part is confidence and skill.

Q. What’s the worst part of being a full time, working artist?

NMB — Loneliness.

— Nancy Morgan Barnes, Maine Art Scene 2010

The dedication of ones’ life to being an artist is a form of passion that when paired with steady work resembles a marriage. The pairing of two painters in a marriage is a union that merges twin solitudes. Robert Barnes and Nancy Morgan Barnes are such a couple, sharing a life of painting and teaching, maintaining their own unique voice while sharing many attributes of their visions.

Nancy’s art looks like recognizable stories that have been run through a dream filter and contain a quirkiness we often associate with neurosis, when subconscious impulses overwhelm our rational perspectives. Her art contains a pre-conscious psychology which becomes a means of exorcising those subliminal demons.

Nancy Morgan Barnes, Wolf, oil on linen 10"x13", 2015 - photo courtesy of the artist

“Most painters would agree that the act of painting, in itself, is a kind of neurosis. All these neurotic disorders are the hallmarks, vaguely symptomatic of the contemporary painter: obsessive compulsive disorder — repetition of the same movements over and over again; narcissism — the belief that what we produce has beauty and meaning; and agoraphobia — the fear of leaving the studio for any length of time,” Nancy Barnes said, reflecting on her artwork and habits for this issue. “Painting — you can’t eat it, wear it, or live in it. You can’t really play with it and if you’re sick it doesn’t make you better and much of the time it doesn’t even make you happy-so what’s the point. There is none,” she continued. “But if I didn’t paint — I would really go crazy — so I paint to stay — sort of — sane.”

Nancy described her process as an artist moving from directly observed sources to an invented world where one thought or observation feeds and fuels another. Despite intent, a painting can take on a life of its own, going its own way. Repetitions form rhythms: A missing piece of fabric — a hole in a red shirt — reappears, transformed into the red coals of a smoldering pipe, a small red fire in the background, and yet again in the red of the label on the overalls in Axe Man. Details evolve over the life of a painting; the blue vein in a hand mirrors the denim blue overalls and the soft puff of pipe smoke rhymes with the fur lining in the axe man’s hat. Allowing things to happen and loving that process is a part of an artist’s dedication to their art and imagination. Free association becomes a self-perpetuating process where the motivation to work is found in the work itself.

Nancy Morgan Barnes, Axman, oil on masonite 26"x32", 2013 photo courtesy of the artist

“What I am attempting to paint are worlds that are both real and imagined with the idea of finding and then depicting a personal narrative. The images are easily comprehensible but the stories, hopefully, go on to have their own logic and rules,” explains Nancy.

Robert Barnes makes lyrical, dreamlike images with and typically paints in serial form, working a number of paintings or pastels around a theme. One of his series of pastel images is about the Dil Pickle Club, a Bohemian cabaret/theatre for free-thinkers in Chicago (1917–1935). “They were not neurotics, I hate that term,” said Robert, “They were just nuts, and some of the earliest promoters of the sexual revolution.” It was accepting of gays, people of color and all religions; in an era of repression, misogyny, and rampant racism, the Dil Pickle Club was a sanctuary. The founder was Wobbly John Jones and the club was frequented by writers, activists, artists and musicians, among the more prominent members were Clarence Darrow, Emma Goldman, Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg and William Carlos Williams to name a few. Almost hidden from the outside — considered a “hole in the wall” in Tooker Alley — the entrance was marked by a “DANGER” sign that pointed to a main door marked by another sign: “Step High, Stoop Low and Leave Your Dignity Outside.” Once inside, yet another sign reads “Elevate Your Mind to a Lower Level of Thinking.”

“I like to paint figures doing things,” said Robert “People complain that I am difficult because my work cannot be categorized; they want something that can be put into a box.” His work engages with symbolic themes. He incorporates the playfulness of images reminiscent of a surrealist collage replete with psychological complexity and compositional eloquence. The surface quality contains an element of tapestry, and a gestural, expressionist brushwork flickers throughout. His work engages with symbolic themes, seen in one series of drawings based on opera — titled A Night at the Opera — with all of its attendant pageantry. His rich, colorful palette combines narrative with abstract mark making. Color achieves tone where a blue-shadowed figure is backlit by an expanse of orange marks that overlay a warm umber, and then meet with a viridian sleeve, each layer moderating and qualifying the others.

Robert Barnes, Step High/Stoop Low, pastel on paper, 23"x11" — photo courtesy of the artist

The Barnes’s work is aligned with a classical modernism, one that is built like a Marsden Hartley painting where even the clouds have musculature, architecture; they are not a vapor, but a solid: castles in the sky. Italy has also been the couple’s home. The rich history of architecture and diverse human culture has clearly helped to feed their artistic visions. Living in an older civilization where walls are built up layers of plaster and frescoes are painted onto a tactile surface, the surface you see has hundreds of years in its making and time is telegraphed through with echoes and ghosts. The vestiges of Quattrocento painting find their way into their work.

Both Robert and Nancy spoke of their larger works taking a long time to make, some canvases are worked on for up to two years. They build up layers of colors, over-paint layers, scrape and sand, exploring, excavating, remembering and imagining subjects into being: fragments of daily life, history, myth, human and animal. The images arrive over time and the structure develops with them. Robert has been painting for sixty years, “Painting is not separate from life,” Robert said, “It is as much a part of life as going to Toziers for groceries.”

Later, after meeting with Nancy and Robert, I thought about — felt nostalgia for — the life they created both as teachers and artists, “We are Bohemians,” Robert told me. But they also discussed how the world has changed around them, seen through hurdles their daughter — also an artist — faces; the trend towards institutions hiring teachers as adjuncts, the inability of galleries to shelter and mentor a career, a shrinking pool of patrons and a growing number of artists.

I thought that perhaps it is not the artist who is the neurotic, but the society that places demands and limitations on the activities and workings of the artists: the demand for self-promotion, sales and a treadmill of production. Painting slowly, thoughtfully, attentively is a rational, even noble response to the demands of the world.

Robert Barnes, Wobblies, pastel on paper, 23"x11" — photo courtesy of the artist

“I made a series called Penobscot when I first moved here,” said Robert. “I like to get to know a place by making paintings about where I am. I like the ocean, that it is an active, even menacing force. Every day something new is brought in or out by the tide. The seaweed withers and then comes back to life; it’s like a resurrection every day. People in Maine have said to me that I am ‘from away’ and I tell them: ‘I am here now.’ ” But, he went on to say that placing too much focus on just the place causes art to close in on itself, become repetitive, even generic. To continue to make original work the artist must not really fit in, too much, anywhere, but to continue to be moved by the spectacle of daily life.

Seeing Double originally appeared in the Maine Arts Journal (UMVA online), Spring 2016

An artist who writes. Author of Plan B at Art at Editorial board