Galerie Dominique Bouffard
Sept 1, 2016 – October 2, 2016
Daniel Barkley’s latest exhibit at Galerie Dominique Bouffard is a celebration of the male form. The show consists of three bodies of work ranging in medium from acrylic on canvas or wood to watercolours, in a combination consisting of some studies as well as larger tableaux. Barkley is an artist who appreciates the immediacy of working in acrylic while painting like an oil painter, and his works are much more textural than one might expect from acrylic paintings. Their skillful rendering is an homage to the beauty of the male nude, while also being true to the modus operandi of many of the best portrait painters. Barkley revels in the authenticity of the individual while placing them, sometimes uncomfortably, in varied roles. Once you know that Barkley works in theatre with carpenters and other set painters, and that these are often the model base he typically draws on, appreciation for his work is further enriched. Barkley has an interest in medieval art, as well as images from the Soviet era which idolize the proud and manly worker. While each influence can be felt in his work, not one is overwhelming. You can feel the roots of Quebec in Barkley’s paintings, from his upbringing as a Catholic to the socialist vein that runs through the province. Although these paintings are undeniably homoerotic in their adoration of the male nude, they are not exclusively so, and can be appreciated by any viewer who enjoys the male body, has a healthy love of myth or skillful portraiture. Undoubtedly, they can be admired for their virtuosic rendering as well as their mild humour and playfulness.
These works span a trinity of themes: exorcism, Lazarus and faune. A commonality through them all is the act of complicating the human figure with some kind of substance, from gold leaf to white paint to deer netting. At first I sought the symbolism in each, which can be found to be sure, but the more I looked at the skill of Barkley’s work, the more it seemed he was trying to make painting the figure a greater challenge for himself, wondering what would be fun and difficult to paint. My guess is that for an artist like Barkley a true challenge is the most fun one can have in art. The palette of these works is his usual one, perhaps a little lighter, with the flesh rendered in cool tones of quinacridone red, cool blues and various pale tones, but never yellows, which the artist idiosyncratically asserts ruins every painting they occur in. There is a clear love of art history conveyed in Barkley’s work, with particular fondness for Grünewald and Bosch. For recent correspondences, Lucien Freud, Jenny Saville and Odd Nerdrum were the first to come to my mind.
The eroticism of the male nude is not seen often after the predominance of Greek art in which the ever-human in character gods were portrayed in their unclothed perfection, nude bodies in gleaming marble or draped in cloth. Later, in a repressed fashion we encounter the male nude in the Christianity-dominated era, where Jesus and saints were tortured, spread, pierced and revered. There is a certain eroticism of the everyday in the types of men and youths that Barkley chooses, as well as a tender rendering in the loving brushwork which cuts in at subtle and finely observed angles, from the eye which so keenly sees and the hand which is so in tune with it.
Lines, scratches and a multitude of unexpected marks free the viewer largely from the relentlessness of Barkley’s skillful representation. His works are very much about drawing and process, as well as precision of colour, line and form. This can be seen from the fact that this exhibition is largely bolstered by studies and watercolours, which, from many artists, would serve as finished works. He is also known to be a masterful draughtsman, and a book of his drawings was recently published. Barkley is a formal artist, but one unusually connected to myth, which is less common in contemporary art than one might think.
Daniel Barkley has long been intrigued by the biblical story of Lazarus, which he conveys here as the nude male covered in a white liquid substance, which is partly dried to the face at times. Since Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus, I thought of the white lye poured on dead bodies, although in art history he is usually portrayed as rising from the tomb wrapped in strips of white linen. The white material covering these figures brings to mind milk and purity, according to the artist. Paradoxically, there are many associations the white substance conjures up in a viewer, which manage to be an engaging combination of transcendent and erotic, even dirty, as they could also be thought to have been thoroughly baptized in come.
The Lazarus nudes are tumescent, half-erect, about to rise like their namesake from the death of sleep. Their eyes are closed, and some seem to be struggling to stretch and move their bodies once more. The oil on wood triptych, entitled Lazarus (Triptyque / Triptych) is presented as if for worship in a religious format, portraying a tense figure in the middle panel, shoulders raised to his ears, perhaps condensing his form to pass through a birth canal. The figures on either side of him gesture with their hands as if opening their chests, their hearts. The blue background is the colour of spirit, of sky right before the depth of night, and red lines and scratches are dug through, which could stand for vitality or for life’s visceral hardness which intersects with the divine experience.
One of the most striking works is Big White Face, drooling, provocative, with profound visual depth, as the man closes his wet white-lashed eyes with his mouth wide open. The watercolour Lazarus paintings are done dry, and Barkley’s technique is to only moisten his paper for the initial stretching. The boys lie upon black rectangles like coffins, tense, as if reawakening or contracting in orgasmic bliss. Perhaps birth is just such an experience. These models were covered in paint, and, of course, painted with paint, so essentially it is an artist’s comment; paint is all that clothes them much as flesh clothes the spirit and paint adorns the canvas. Every moment of our existence consists of layers of revealing and concealing.
Daniel Barkley’s lovely fauns are young men with heavy leather belts holding together skirts of deer netting as if they are black mesh tutus. These paintings are playful and reminiscent of actors in an amateur production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. These Pucks are a little ungainly, as if they’re still growing into their bodies and their masculinity, captured fauns in deer netting unsure of their sexuality and identity. The netting is rendered meticulously, yet with a certain looseness. The rough, manly hands and feet seem to reveal a certain work ethic, perhaps they are the carpenters or stage hands Barkley works with, since they don’t look like actors or dancers. They are mawkish as they attempt to hold a ballet first position, they seem to be playing a role, and are in various states of comfort or discomfort with it, reminiscent of all of us in the varied roles we play.
Many of the canvases in the Faune series are broken into multiple, different-sized panels to form diptychs, again echoing religious iconography, yet they represent the “forbidden”, they convey homoerotic desire. They also recall those days on the stage when boys played women. Particularly lovely is Faune with Green Toenails (Dipytch), who stares at us intensely as he reveals himself, and poses, of course, with lime green toenails. These fauns are tamed creatures, posing, submitting, but a little wild, a little uncomfortable, and they provoke us while making us uncomfortable about our gaze. One of the larger works of this series, and to my mind the most successful, is Faune- Personnage Secondaire, who is the only young man bearing horns. His feet are painted black, but only on the top front portion, as if they are meant to loosely convey the idea of hooves in an amateur theatrical. In anointing the feet of this young man in black paint and giving him hooves it is doubly heathen, since it also brings associations of Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Jesus. Again, there is a bit of irreverence, more than hinting at homoerotic expression in a typically religious format of diptych and triptych, a format meant to fold up and be revealed for intimate worship. There is an awkward, moving humanity, a vulnerability to the masculine in these boys. Faune 9 is in a lovely pose, arms above his head, relaxed and saucy, seemingly more confident in his nudity and attire than the others. The thick brown leather belts which hold the black netting in place resemble what a monk might wear over his habit.
This exhibition contains two large exorcism paintings and several small painted studies. The exorcism paintings show one young man expelling his double through his mouth and the toes of the “demonic” figure appear to be stuffed in the mouth of the one who was possessed. The dynamic movements of the twisting, escaping figures are very effective in their naturalism even though they are propelled through the air. The use of emotion particularly in the body language of the possessed ones are very convincing and engaging. The possessed figure contorts and contracts, seemingly in pain or shock.
The use of gold leaf in the Lazarus paintings—rendered expertly in paint, not applied to the canvas—is due to Barkley’s interest in medieval art, as is the theme of these works. A popular medieval subject is a demon being purged from the body of a person through the mouth, with the foot of the creature still in contact. In Barkley’s paintings, the painted gold leaf flies through the air as the expelled body undulates through the atmosphere, born out of himself. Against gritty industrial backgrounds, the nude men stand in water upset by ripples, and paired with an image of exorcism, baptism comes to mind. Symbolically, water can convey emotion in dream realms, a conductive sphere of influence where the fluidity of state change is imminent and everything is connected.
Barkley likens these images to Ouroboros, the snake who eats his own tail. If the man is possessed by himself, what is he exorcising? His erotic desires? His doppelgänger? Is he in a constant process of purging layers of self? Again, we come back to musing on actors, with the world as a stage, and the many-layered personae we bear within ourselves. The erotic is also present, the orifice filled with a lowly foot, the contorted bodies, the mirrored image in homoerotic desires which could, symbolically, point to a yearning to connect to, and penetrate, the higher self. There are phallic interpretations to one devouring one’s own tail, as well as self-sufficiency implied in such wholeness. One also can think of Narcissus and his mirror image. Are these characters exorcising an image of themselves, an addiction to narcissism? As in all good art, we aren’t provided with obvious answers, only potential ones and a plethora of questions.
Daniel Barkley is an artist with a certain insistence on physical reality even when he is expressing moments of magic. I asked him why only the foot was coming out of the mouth, why not just a hand emerging or why didn’t the mouth of the possessed one is open like a snake. Barkley rather recoiled from the idea, saying it would be weird, the image of some other artist. Although his works are imaginative, there is a certain formalism, the portraitist’s respect for nature’s proportions and limitations. A bit out of left field from the other exorcism paintings is Hermes, a close-up acrylic painting of a very well-kempt pair of feet decorated loosely in gold leaf, with a vague impression of wings around the ankles. These are the feet of Hermes or Mercury, god fleet of foot, god of transitions and boundaries who moves freely between worlds. Exorcism 2 shows a tension in gripped hands, a contraction of the stomach, as if a birth through the mouth, expelling of breath/life. The surprise on the boy’s face and pose in Étude pour exorcism 1 I find freer than the larger exorcism paintings, and there is an engaging, slightly wicked expression in the face of the boy expelled. In Étude pour exorcism 3, the escaping one sleepily clutches himself like a newborn baby, which returns us to the rebirth theme introduced in the Lazarus paintings.
There is a power and a sense of drama to the large works in this exhibition–particularly the Exorcism paintings–which is counterbalanced by an intimacy and freedom of gesture in the studies. Barkley paints nudes because they are timeless and don’t indicate class. There is a purity and sanctity to these nudes, as well as a high degree of honesty. Even though the paintings are allegorical, they seem very specific, more within the realms of portraiture and not of archetype, which is where they differ from classical art or Renaissance painting. It appears to me that the artist perceives the erotic and the holy in the everyday man, and thus paints them democratically and with worshipful rigor, glorifying his models as imperfect gods. Daniel Barkley’s latest works are irreverent in that Québécois way where the worst curse words are ecclesiastical in origin. However, these paintings are also oddly reverent in their own, more secular way, where the body is a holy temple and art is the highest way to ponder human existence through form, the transcendental place where body and mind meet, on the canvas.