by Laura Hutson Hunter
Frist Art Museum, June 22 – September 16, 2018
I thought Stanley Kubrick’s elevator scene in The Shining had ruined blood-soaked picture frames for everyone else, but that was before I saw the Barnaby Furnas painting Untitled (Flood) at the Frist Art Museum. Now, it is the Furnas flood that will immediately come to mind whenever I am called to imagine a sea of blood, and Kubrick’s vision is merely a footnote. This painting is at once abstract and allegorical, equal parts Mark Rothko and William Blake, and filled with elements of horror, redemption, and revenge. It’s a highlight of the Frist Art Museum’s grand exhibit Chaos and Awe: Painting in the 21st Century and one of the best uses of the color red since Jack Nicholson swung an ax.
At the opening reception for Chaos and Awe, the New York-based Furnas visited the Frist alongside the museum’s chief curator Mark Scala and other artists whose work is in the exhibit, including Tennessee-based painters James Perrin (Nashville) and Hamlett Dobbins (Memphis).
“What I look for in painting is a feeling of vacancy,” Furnas said during the gallery tour. “I’m always looking for ways to have such an intense experience of looking that I cease to exist.”
Scala echoed that sentiment in a recent conversation with Number when he described Flood’s place in the exhibition’s section dedicated to the theme of The Boundless. “A painting contains a certain amount of information,” Scala explained, “but you just see a little slice of it. The reality is that everything is happening outside the boundaries of the paintings, so the painting becomes a little synecdoche of something that’s much larger than itself.”
Untitled (Flood) is a massive 84” x 140” canvas that seems to take over the entire gallery wall. Stripes of blood-red paint swish in broad back-and-forth brushstrokes across the bottom of the canvas, leaving slivers of light blue toward the top. The paint splatters in parts, like wet ink or fireworks, and each broad brushstroke is blended into a darker shade of red in its lower portion, which gives the painting depth — it’s as if each mark has its own weight. The composition is almost claustrophobic, and it does overwhelm in the same way as Kubrick’s blood splashing up at you from both sides. Indeed, Furnas had horror in mind when he first conceptualized the painting.
“The Flood works,” he explains in his gallery talk, which is available on the Frist’s YouTube channel, “came out of a series I was working on where I tried to envision what Hell would look like. I had this idea that when the rapture happens, these demons come to earth and reduce us back to our liquid form.” Try not to have nightmares when Furnas describes that, in his vision of the apocalypse, the world isn’t just flooded by water, but by us — by the contents of our skin.
That dramatic, violent subject matter is typical of Furnas, whose most recent gallery show — this spring’s Frontier Ballads at New York’s Marianne Boesky Gallery — is dedicated to mostly figurative works of American grandeur, from cowboys to Mount Rushmore. Like many artists, Furnas grapples with what it means to be an artist in Trump’s America. Surely his sweeping red paint has different connotations after the 2016 election when the conservative red states overpowered America, perhaps aided by communist powers. But for Furnas, the color red has a potential that exists outside of its representational qualities.
“My first eureka moment as an artist,” he explains, “was when I had a piece of paper with water spilled on it. I took a small brush with a little bit of red paint on it, and I just touched it to that liquid, and the red just shot through.”
The Flood paintings, Furnas says, are manifestations of that first simple gesture.
“Red is a very aggressive pigment,” he says. “It will crowd out other colors on a watercolor tray — if you have red next to green, the red will take over the green. And so with these floods, I’m just trying to get back to that moment, that moment of watching a picture happen in front of me.
“When that red shoots through the clear water, it was like I wasn’t making it, I was just witnessing it.”
Author: Laura Hutson Hunter is a Nashville-based writer and curator.