Jack Barrett, who died in February at 78, is the subject of the largest single-artist exhibition in memory at the Arts Center, with 62 framed works and a wall of shelves holding a portion of his sketchbooks. Even with so much dedicated gallery space, curator Amanda Cooper must have had an arduous task selecting works. He was such a prolific artist, not a single piece was lent from other collections; all came from his and wife Louise Barrett's holdings. And as one Arts Center staffer related, his house and studio still brimmed with works after these had been sent.
If you are a Barrett fan, as are many people including me, you will find here a gracious plenty of his leitmotifs: strong colors, flat perspectives, stylized figures. The earliest work in the show, an oil crayon drawing from 1965 titled Descending Angel, has them all. So does his last work, Highway to Heaven. The former looks like a simple sketch, the latter is a densely encrusted painting, but the 40-plus years and methodology that separate them are minimal compared to their similarities.
Yet we see, perhaps for the first time, the wide range of experimentation within his chosen parameters. He veers from simple figuration to complex abstraction, from suave brush strokes to heavy impasto, from starkly contrasting colors to elegant modulations. Unfortunately, none of the wall labels have dates though the show is arranged somewhat chronologically based on Louise Barrett's knowledge of the collection. Barrett himself rarely dated his works. So we can't really study the evolution of his style or a thematic progression.
Still, that absence is less critical here. The most interesting thing about the show for the many of us who have seen his art incrementally through the years is the small discoveries. One that emerged for me was Barrett's treatment of hands. I was struck, in painting after painting, by how undeveloped they are: at times embryonic little stubs, at others blurred suggestions. Sometimes, as in The Puppeteer, they are absent altogether. Even when they are most clearly delineated, as in Night Walker and Dans le Jardin, they are painted as disembodied objects rather than an appendage emerging from a sleeve.
A convincing hand is notoriously difficult in art but I don't believe that was Barrett's problem. Nor do I believe that by the time he finished lavishing finesse on his faces, especially those magnificent eyes, he slapdashed the rest of the details. I think he viewed hands as servants to the real master, the eye. Bodies are also painted as secondary subjects perhaps because the really important stuff was happening inside them, hidden from view. He remedies that by often painting a heart somewhere on the canvas.
A display of his sketchbooks is my favorite inclusion. Good draftsmanship was for centuries the sine qua non of art and Barrett's sketches and studies are treasures. Done as he sat in a mall, rode a bus or stood on a street corner, they show the power of his observation and the measure of his gift. His fidelity to the strong line anchored the riot of images teeming in so many of his paintings, especially the more abstract ones.
I learned from many conversations with Barrett that he wasn't analytical about his art. He liked to throw himself into a work, immersing himself in the stream of associations and images that came to him as he painted, then move on to a new inspiration. He often couldn't remember why a painting was given its name. He was, in those respects, a painter of surfaces. Though his allusions ran deep and he could translate them into recurring images without a bit of cliche, they were personal often to the point of obscurity. His style is the most accessible thing about his paintings. His best ones are, simply, a delight to behold.
Lennie Bennett can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.
Jack Barrett: A Soul's Journey
The exhibition is at the Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, through Nov. 1. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For information: theartscenter.org or (727) 822-7872.