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Curtis Barnes' Exhibition Combines Personal and Political

Curtis Barnes exhibition at Frye Art Museum


In one of the many commentaries accompanying his work at the Frye Art Museum, Seattle artist Curtis Barnes writes that he always begins with the idea of making peaceful, nonpolitical pieces, but something happens along the way. "The Unicorn Incorporated:Curtis R Barnes" is the most political show I've ever seen at the Frye.

Some of the strongest political statements come in the series "Masks," drawings of pen and ink and opaque correction fluid, which Barnes started in the 1970s. Barnes explains that "the drawings were a means to assess human nature and the layers that we construct for ourselves. They were also technical exercises based on my study of Islamic art and architecture and ancient mysticism, and reflected how long I could keep pen to paper without stopping." This commentary is typical of those accompanying the exhibit which interpret the art, explain his process, and discuss the motives behind works like the " Masks" series. These commentaries give the exhibition a very personal and intimate feeling, as if the artist were chatting with the viewer, revealing himself.

"Masks" refers to the way we all wear masks, public and private ones. The drawings sometimes present well-known figures, sometimes representatives of a group, such as the grotesques of capitalists and war-mongers in "Urban Gargoyles," and sometimes states of mind or society, such as "Apartheid," where a saber-toothed man in a suit has a missile protruding from his eye. All the drawings pair obsessive detail with spare barely suggested lines.

Presumably the curator has heightened the political power by the grouping of certain drawings. One such group comprises "Payoffs and Kickbacks," "Secretary of State Searching for History," (and resembling Henry Kissinger), "Green River Killer," and "Child Molester" (looking very corporate).

The drawings also have somewhat lighter moments such as the homages to blues and jazz musicians, like Charlie Parker and Big Mama Thornton, where the instruments take on fantastical arabesque and plant-like forms and Big Mama's voice spirals into a cornucopia.

The show also includes large oil or mixed media paintings where Barnes' obsession with detailed line is replaced by an obsession with shades of color. "The range of colors that I use is meant to reflect the intersection of natural and artificial light. I call it 'neon.'" What continues is the artist's concern with social issues, as in "Junkie Finds a Broken Mirror and Looks Forward into His Past," which conveys its story more through mood and color than literal representation.

One section tells a sad chapter in Seattle's history. Barnes and his wife Royal Alley-Barnes managed to convince the Seattle Parks and Recreation Committee to let them paint a mural on the concrete wall housing the Medgar Evers Pool in the Central District, partly by conducting a survey that showed 90% of the black community supported the idea of a mural. But the mural was controversial, depicting the birth of the black family in Africa from chaos, the destruction of their harmony with nature by some white centaurs (representing, the artists said, all forms of oppression), their escape from chains and victory over oppression into a honeycomb symbolizing unity. Not enough money was raised to seal the painting so it deteriorated. In the 1990s, a campaign was launched to restore the mural, but instead, it was destroyed.

Fittingly, the first exhibition of Barnes' work is being held at the museum where he attended his first art classes. The exhibit runs until September 21. For more information on the Frye Museum, hours and directions, see

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