Variously recalling the Symbolist paintings of Gustave Moreau and Henri Rousseau, the bandes dessinées of Moebius, Scandinavian and American folk art, and naturalist illustration, Norwegian artist Nina Barnes’ work creates idiosyncratic worlds that at once feel uniform and cacophonous, primordial and new, and which employ and destabilize the effects of realism. Her process is elaborate and methodical: she begins each image with watercolor and colored pencil, follows with acrylic, and then collages the result. Next, she scans the composition, prints it, and adds further layers of paint and collage, repeating the cycle until she reaches the desired effect.
Not surprisingly, this artist invested in dialectical approach produces work that values conflict. As shown by this portfolio—a selection from the in-progress art-graphic novel Valerie Marie Osten Shafer’s peculiar death—contradiction is a major concern of Barnes’ art: representations of symmetry are countered with bizarre shifts in proportion; arctic landscapes, far from austere, teem luxuriantly; the solitary nude figures who inhabit some scenes appear unperturbed by their exposure and, while directly involved with their surroundings, are set apart by outline, dimension, and aura. The contrast between figure and setting is sometimes so great that two temporal experiences seem to be offered; the human subject often looks frozen in time while the undulating world around him or her goes on.
Such uncanniness in Barnes’ work lends it gravity, as do the ways the diverse components intermingle and recombine. Flora and fauna commonly fuse to produce newly interwoven species: a fungus, for example, may boast a pelvic bone. Other amalgamations prove more difficult to parse. In Dominik Adalbrecht Linsbauer Althaus fills his mind with an agreeable kind of horror, aquatic and insectile elements merge with those of religious iconography to form a palatial factory from which golden rays emanate. Framed with fleshy valves and botanical flourishes, the orbed scepter at the heart of this gruesome structure attracts the viewer’s attention inward toward its blood-red nucleus. Similarly, in Landscapism, the halved apple situated directly in the middle of the composition crowns the spinal cord of a tree. Here, too, our eyes are pulled vertiginously inward, past the white apple toward the dark pit at its center where a seed must be. The effect of looking at it is a bit like falling through a wormhole.
Barnes’ landscapes and human subjects also explore environmentalist concerns, insofar as the works describe ecosystems—many of which harbor human characters who seem detached from the totality of their habitats and unaware of corruption acknowledged elsewhere within the scene. Consider the smokestacks from which mushrooms puff out pink smog in Greta Obstenfelt Wassershlagen absentmindedly considers her next meal, or, in Ludwiga Konstanze Osten Shafer senses a rising tonality born from the rejection of reality, the sickly ovular pod harnessing resources from a vegetal pond while likely polluting it. The female figures in both pictures are turned away from the burgeoning landscapes: Greta is serenely bent over, one hand buried inside the cavity of a ghoulish fowl; Ludwiga crouches suspended in the water next to the pod, but her disconcerted eyes look away and out of the frame.
The peculiarly immobile yet psychologically complex manners in which lone individuals occupy Barnes’ landscapes express her preoccupation with the human form. In a recent exchange, she elaborated: “Any way you attack it—abstract, expressionistic, or naturalistic—it’s a form that contains something so banal and basic and washed up—yet still we are mystified by it, still it holds a spell over us—and it’s that dichotomy I’m probing.”
J.G. & L.S.