Acrylic ink and pencil on canvas, 18″ x 24″, inspired by the 2014 plane crash at Hanscom Air Field
The painting is “Crash” (2014) by Massachusetts-based artist Jess Barnett. I respond immediately to this piece’s stark, tense, violent energy. Leaving the title & inspiration out of the picture (which is of course impossible, but doing my best here to just focus on the pure visual elements), the painting owes much of its emotional power to its unusual compositional & formal elements, as well as its indeterminate, shifting associations.
Let’s consider the formal ingredients first: the vertical blue-gray, brisk brushstrokes of the background, punched through by three thin, black & red lines. The lines are in turn blotted by four different color shapes, each of which establish themselves with unsettling 3-D presence against the rest of the painting’s ether. The first thing that strikes me here, formally, are the vectors. We have the upward & “inward” vector of the three dark lines, tridenting forward. We have the downward & upward vectors of the background. We have the circular motions of the two blue blotches below. And we have the red gelatin cylinder pointing top-left, while the brown-blue sea cucumber points to the top-right, each crossing one or more of the 3 lines, their orientations creating angles with each. Finally, there are punctuating bright blood dot sprays on either side of the three lines that keep the eye sweeping from side to side. For a piece with just a few elements of subject matter, that’s a lot of motion & interest, very well economized, and when you add in the title and the blood-red colors and the suggestion of a road or smoke or guts, you have not only motion, and uncertainy, and multiplicity, but all that stuff plus suffering, pain and death. A potent, mysterious concentration which in ways is reminiscent of the disembodied works of Bacon.
Composition aside, the painting makes me imagine and see many things (again, leaving aside the title and inspiration, responding purely to the visual content). Many things I can’t even name. To start with what I can describe: I like how the three lines seem to create a perspective, and begin to situate the action in a tangible universe: it’s as if we’re seeing a rainy road stretching into fog. Or it could be a pair of slightly bloodied, emaciated legs, feet disappearing into water, or some other substance. Or it could be just lines, disembodied and not establishing 3D-ness at all. But just when it seems like you’re looking at some kind of flat configuration of shapes, there’s something about the way the color blots, the vertical stroke sky, the blue-gray filling in the lines’ spaces near the bottom, and the lines themselves which all exist to create a nervous visceral energy, one that shifts back and forth between a 3-D depiction and a 2-D one. Example: that red presence is sometimes a well sculpted blotch, other times a kind of small, tangible boutique dessert shop blood-flan. Or a dense truncated cone of plasma. The topmost shape is sometimes a 2D spiral cable, but sometimes it leaps out at you: smoke, fresh coil of intestine, alien organ.
A troubling piece that moves deeply with its stark, careful visual language.
For more information about Jess Barnett’s paintings, please check out jessbarnett.com.