John Barker at Eggman and Walrus: Practicing Distractionism
Eggman & Walrus’s new show Paint Forward opened last Friday with a live performance by Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s Treemotel and 40 acrylic paintings by John Barker, an emerging artist and Santa Fe native whose family dates back to 1879 when Barker’s great grandfather rode into Santa Fe on a horse. Barker is gaining recognition after his first show last year at Eggman opened to great success. On day two of Paint Forward, several works were already sold. Not bad for a single dad with a full-time job who never considered himself an artist.
Barker is even coining new art terms and calls his work “distractionsism,” a contemporary interpretation of Ab-Ex that reflects today’s times. John Barker says everyone these days has ADHD, himself included. He works on multiple paintings simultaneously, multitasking and ultimately using a number of odd paint applicators from ketchup bottles, Mrs. Meyer’s soap bottles, q-tips, palette knives and spouted bartending bottles. Magic markers are often first to go down on the canvas while brushes are often the last.
Barker’s previous work features more text—often speech bubbles issuing commands like “Send me only TEXTS” with contemporary signposts interwoven through the imagery such as ‘taco bell’ and ‘coca cola.’ Several of these works can be seen at Starbucks on San Francisco Street across from the gallery. His new body of work focuses on the figure and its contour lines. Some paintings are purportedly portraits of Santa Fe locals, but unlike Ben Haggard’s Faces of Santa Fe, which documents hundreds of residents; don’t expect to recognize too many faces in Paint Forward.
Tucumcari New Mexico is one of the largest paintings in the show at 48 “x 36” and one of the only portraits with a representational background. A red semi truck emerges from behind the figure’s head as if this man is at a gas station with a semi passing on the road behind. He wears a collared shirt and tie, outlined in inky black globular lines that unite the 40 paintings with their crusted bodily delineations. His face has two contours but one is less developed, a faded forgotten egg-shape floating up and above his forehead with pinks and yellows that travel in geometric shapes across to the truck’s skyline. His eyes are small little empty circles but one has a bulging oval frame like a horrendous bag. His nose, like most of Barker’s noses, is a curved-corner rectangle that reaches up in between the eyes with a swollen bulge. Yellow and pastel pink decorate his body and blues, greens and browns suggest pastoral scenery behind him.
Barker sites his influences as Picasso and Giacometti. Where Picasso moved body parts, Barker says, “I’m just moving lines.” Barker’s figures are deformed here and there by skewed proportions but where Picasso has clean lines with contained color, Barker has irresolute searching lines and messy color. Giacometti’s sketches employ similar searching lines but in a formal pursuit. If anything the bright red and black scribbles across the semi in Tucamcari New Mexico read as graffiti, likening Barker’s compositions to the Neo-Expressionism of Basquiat.
Butterfly Woman is 36 x 30, a nude in red and yellow with no arms and a black bubble swooping down from her squared right breast. It looks like a sack, some nest or umbilical cord still attached while other fluid black lines plummet from her belly button. Her head is big and so are her breasts, rectangles the same shape as her nose. Her right eye is a mess of red and yellow circles that feel viscerally bleary and watery while the left offers a penetrative stare up at something. In place of a neck, Barker subtracted material in fast horizontal scrapes. Her thighs are thick and her belly is small and the canvas ends at her knees. Small belly and bright colors aside, Butterfly Woman could be a distractionist version of the Woman of Willendorf.
Despite the rapidity of his hand and dogged rendering, Barker’s portraits aren’t emotional messes. They are fairly upbeat characters with wide eyes and frazzled complexions, symptomatic of too much coffee. Considering these 40 paintings hold together seamlessly, one can imagine most images are of Barker himself.