Allusive: Barbee more post- than modern
Robert Barbee’s paintings appear to be the work of several painters, all of whom have a deep interest in modernist art, just not the same kinds.
A quick stroll through the Barbee Retrospective at Les Yeux du Monde, and anyone acquainted with early-to-mid 20th century art will pick out the flattened-perspective geometry of Picasso, the allusions to surrealism, the comic-book-panel aesthetic favored by some pop artists, or the lush paintings of Paul Cezanne.
And that doesn’t even include Barbee’s landscapes, which seem to have no connection to the rest of the work and little connection to one another.
Barbee, who taught at the University of Virginia for several decades, comes across as a bit of a chameleon. (The work on display dates from his time on the UVA faculty.) What emerges, slowly and steadily, is the impression that while Barbee seems to have been lobbying for his Modernist art green card with nearly every painting, he was more of a postmodernist at heart. His artwork appropriates without strain whole chunks of Modernist styles and then puts them to the service of Barbee’s favorite themes: shadow, distance, and the processes of painting thematized.
A painting like “Nude in Sunlight” includes many such themes. In the background of what appears to be a studio, a nude model stands with her arms stacked across her forehead. A simple sketch of this model takes up the foreground and the center of the painting, and the unnatural band of sunlight that falls across her lap also appears, through broken and shifted, in the sketch. The bands of light and the inclusion of canvasses and windows give the painting a simple, artificial geometry.
And then, nearly tucked away behind the large sketch of the nude, Barbee reproduces one of his own paintings (which is conveniently also included in this exhibit), a landscape of hills delineated by crosshatched rows of trees. The painting never fully succumbs to geometric abstraction or realism, and Barbee’s cannibalism of his own work gives it a strange touch of playfulness. This is the closest thing to a Rosetta stone Barbee offers.
The Robert Barbee retrospective runs through June 27 at Les Yeux du Monde at dot2dot. 115 S. First St. 973-5566.