Figures in Isolation
Figures in Isolation
In the below 2009 video produced by the Smithsonian, Barnet describes his 1984 painting The Blue Thread as a landscape of sorts—the windows representing the sky, the woman (Barnet’s daughter, Ona), her son, and their cat spread out across the painting like a sprawling expanse of land. The viewer is guided through this expanse by the continuity of the blue thread, the controlled sprawl of the child’s toys, and, as Barnet notes, the central unifying presence of the cat. The lights of the home brighten the crisp white wall between mother and child, emphasizing the safety and warmth of the interior as we see, through the window, the blue light fading over a cool forest. In this painting, domestic intimacy is evoked not through the facial expressions, or indeed the movement, of figures themselves, but is constructed via a meticulous attention to composition and color.
Barnet was born and raised in Beverly, Massachusetts, in a house built by his father. His New Englander identity became increasingly emphasized in his work throughout the 80s and 90s, as he explored the possibilities of the distinctive interiors of traditional New England homes, as well as the omnipresence of history and reflection that colors the way of life there. In The Blue Thread, Barnet uses large New England windows to frame the woman and child in their own universes, while bringing them together through other elements of the composition. In the left-hand window, a house with its own windows aglow points to the universality of this comfortable interior scene. Later in the 1980s and 90s, Barnet would expand this exploration of the New England home as the emotional framework for images not of domestic togetherness, but of the frightening and remarkable effects of isolation on the solitary mind, and the distortion of time and memory that accompany old age. The two series at the center of this virtual viewing room, the Emily Dickinson Series and My Father’s House, are the deeply poetic, often haunting, result of that exploration.
Barnet became interested painting the subject of solitary women in New England in the 1970s, and was thus well equipped when he was approached by George Braziller to make a series based on Emily Dickinson in the mid-1980s. In most of the series, a woman is depicted in or just outside a house, gazing out of a window or balcony. While the subject’s confinement is emphasized by her placement within the imposing frame of a large window, or the wooden structure of a balcony, her pensive gaze is outward, into the world. The Dickinson poems connected to these works often present a speaker overcome with the sheer fury and wonder of the natural world, both in moments of delicacy, such as listening to birds chirp in Spring in Poem 1764, and those of ferocity, like the violent storm of Poem 824. Together, the poems and images evoke an experience of solitude that is marked by exceptional sensitivity to the external world—a celebration of the creativity born of isolation, and reverent acknowledgement of both the joys and suffering that come with a seemingly reclusive life.
The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,
The maddest noise that grows,-
The birds, they make it in the spring,
At night's delicious close.
Between the March and April line -
That magical frontier
Beyond which summer hesitates,
Almost too heavenly near.
It makes us think of all the dead
That sauntered with us here,
By separation's sorcery
Made cruelly more dear.
It makes us think of what we had,
And what we now deplore.
We almost wish those siren throats
Would go and sing no more.
An ear can break a human heart
As quickly as a spear,
We wish the ear had not a heart
So dangerously near.
“…are we wrong to sense in his work a specifically New England quality, derived from the chaste and elegant severity of its tombstones, its saltbox houses, its plain wood furniture, its clean cold light? While his direct heritage did not include Puritanism, the hymnlike metrics and slant metaphysics of Emily Dickinson’s poetry have repeatedly served him as an overt inspiration. His style, like hers, seeks the bone of things.”
— John Updike, 2004
My Father's House
My Father’s House (or the Beverly Series) was conceived during Barnet’s return to Beverly to care for his last living sibling, Eva, in the early 1990s. Now at the end of her life, Eva became disoriented in time and followed by visions of dead family members haunting the rooms of the family home, where she had lived her entire life in seclusion alongside Barnet’s other sister, Jeanette. While in the Dickinson series, Barnet’s subject is often looking out beyond her home, finding respite from her isolation in the wonders of the natural world, depictions of Eva in My Father’s House show her with her hands over her face, lost in confusion and turmoil. The large crisp windows and doorways of the New England home frame and entrap her, accentuating her confinement—within the house, and within her own memories. She is often positioned in a distant room while the faceless ghosts of family members from ages past stand or sit unmoving, not acknowledging each other, in the foreground. These specters are sometimes faceless, and often cast in shadow, while Eva is shown in cold, haunting light, as Barnet utilizes color and composition to distinguish between the living and the dead. Barnet depicts himself several times throughout the series, at varying ages, reminding us that this series and its ghosts are part of the personal history of the artist. Part origin story, part eulogy, the domestic interiors of My Father’s House provide a deeply personal rumination on aging, solitude, and the actualizing power of remembrance.
“I wanted to say something about how life just simply evaporates…When you are young, you always think things are ahead of you. You get older you realize that there’s not so much ahead; it’s all in the past. I wanted to capture that.”
— Will Barnet
Checklist of Available Works