ArtForum: Peter Barrickman

Peter Barrickman

The Green Gallery 

There are painters who take inspiration from what they know about painting, and others who thrive on what they don’t know. But in some of the most interesting cases, know-how and naïveté become strangely tangled in a felicitous inconsistency: The artist does not appear to be steadily pursuing a consistent and intelligible project but striking out, almost haphazardly, in different directions, succeeding as if by so many lucky hits. And yet somehow everything seems to add up. Of course, anyone who repeatedly pulls off such a feat is not relying on luck but on a wily artfulness.

These days when I think of that kind of cannily mercurial painter, figures like Tal R, Merlin James, and Nicole Eisenman come to mind. Now I’m happy to have a new name to add to the list, that of Milwaukeean Peter Barrickman. The twenty-six works on canvas, panel, or paper in Barrickman’s recent show exhibited vastly disparate styles and subjects—ranging from the loose brushwork that evokes swirling nocturnal blurs of colored light in Street Cat, 2014, to the blocky, hard-edge paint application (on a fake-brick vinyl-siding support) in Night Files, 2016; from the evanescent, bleached-out portrayal of a chef on a cigarette break in 4th Minute, 2016, a mood study in green and blue shadows and reflections that is far more formally sophisticated than its comics-style linearity would suggest, to the Raoul Dufy–esque ornamental filigree that adumbrates the not-quite-legible architectural space of Emperor of China Restaurant, 2016. The works were bound, however, by attitude and mood. The attitude was above all one of curiosity, something like a desire to turn painting inside out as you would a capacious sackful of who knows what just to see what happens when you try to fit all the bits and pieces together again. The mood—in contrast to the quizzical empiricism of the painter’s bricoleurish attitude—was pensive verging on melancholic. Where figures were depicted, they were solitary, seemingly lost in thought, as in Lamp Shop, 2016, another depiction of a worker taking five for a smoke. Many of the paintings on paper in the “Passenger” series, 2015–16, are based on the view out an airplane window, always an occasion for reverie (and an escape from one’s neighbor). Even in works bearing no representational motif to clue the viewer into the painting’s feeling-tone, inwardness was evoked through the nuances of grayed-out color and a propensity toward a woolgatherer’s reiterative yet unsystematic mark-making. It was as if the delight in what can be done with the spare parts and leftover materials of painting—look at how much can still be done with this!—was immediately followed by a sense of loss or regret: But couldn’t there have been more? And what would that have been?

Presumably such dissatisfaction is what provides the stimulus to undertake the next painting. It also leads back out of painting as a self-contained object to a consideration of how a work’s environment affects it—in this case through use of colored gels to tweak the gallery lighting in such a way as to transmute the works’ appearance. The gallerist was kind enough to show me the paintings with the colored lights off as well as on, and it was instructive to note how the ambient hues subtracted tones and flattened the works’ surfaces, changing their emotional tenor. Gels returned as collage elements in one of the show’s best and strangest paintings, Sabbath Catalog, 2016, in which a kind of patchwork of seemingly mismatched shapes and materials—micaceous iron oxide, acrylic, colored pencil, plastic text labels, paper, gel transparencies, chewing gum, plywood, vinyl siding, sandpaper, and rocks on panel, according to the checklist—compound themselves into something fluid, volatile, and affecting.

Barry Schwabsky

April 1, 2016