What I’m Reading: Artist Michael Barnes

Featured image – “Communication” by Michael Barnes, via http://www.michaelbarnes.us/gallery1/images/Communication.jpg

Michael Barnes (printmaker extraordinaire, and fittingly Professor of Printmaking at Northern Illinois University) works on paper, with a relatively limited color palette. This means discovering and exploiting the various allusions and connotations available within each color’s range of shades and gradations. Sepia, monochrome, isolated images presented on a field of white space – this is the work of an artist with an uncompromising sense of what belongs in an image. Despite working with his hands tied on the basis of color, somehow  Barnes conveys a sense that the world of these images is whole and self-contained around the unusual figures that people his work. It may seem an unlikely comparison, but there are times when Barnes’s sensibility brings to mind John James Audubon’s images in Birds of America. Over just more than a decade (1827-1838) of travel, observation and and collecting specimens, John James Audubon completed 435 life-sized watercolors of North American birds. There’s painstaking detail and a sure hand, evidence of real admiration for the birds Audubon depicts in these paintings. They emerge with distinct character – consider the Eider Duck below for example – and a visual nod at times to the coloration and unfussy arrangement of Japanese woodblocks. Admittedly Barnes appears to enjoy mussing up the environments in his work, often ending with the feel of something bordering on a wasteland. That said, it also immediately appears to be the only place Barnes’s tableaus should unfold.


image via https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/eider-duck

The catalogue Barnes assembles would be a credible document of a man wandering into, say, the world of La Cité des Enfants Perdus with a sketch pad and recording the oddities encountered there. Like Audubon’s work, though, Barnes foregrounds these peculiar figures, shows them to their best advantage – see “Reaching a Compromise,” for example, from Barnes’s aptly titled series (for purposes of my comparison) Ongoing Wanderings.

Reaching a Compromise

image via michaelbarnes.usongoing_wanderings/images/Reaching%20a%20Compromise.jpg 

There’s something oddly disarming about these unusual creatures, some constant sense of plight, of ruin and decay, that’s eerily familiar these days. It’s tempered with dark humor, though – I never turn away from one of Barnes’s images without the sense that the madness unfolding in the odd, dark world of his images is shot through with humor, like with the the dour face and note-perfect absurdity of “A Race to the End.”

A Race to the End

image via http://www.michaelbarnes.us/ongoing_wanderings/images/A%20Race%20to%20the%20End.jpg

So where does this off-kilter sensibility come from? Surely not his reading habits alone, but as he suggests here, his diet as a reader, and his intellectual interests make themselves known in his work:

At the moment, I am reading the recent book by Chuck Palahniuk, “Adjustment Day”.  Why I am reading it – I have thoroughly enjoyed all of the Palahniuk works I have read.  He has a way of digging to the dark core of humanity and society, exposing and dealing with what so many people look away from.  Adjustment Day in particular (am not finished yet though), digs into what is going on at the moment worldwide in politics.

In general, I am a fan of fiction, science fiction in particular, although I am not a an avid reader of contemporary work.  I tend to migrate to older classics and once in awhile I stumble onto, or give a try to something more current.  I also read a lot of historical non-fiction, and listen to audio lectures on history.  I find that all of these areas influence my work, which rolls it all in a ball and what comes out is a sum of it all in some form or another – filtered through my own mind.

Michael Barnes’s work can be found at:

Davidson Galleries in Seattle, Washington

Campbell Steele Gallery in Marion, Iowa



  • John McIntyre, 2018


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