Review: Epithets of Integrity , 2017, Andrew Durgin-Barnes
Born in San Diego to a biker and a nurse, Durgin-Barnes moved to a suburb of Seattle with his mother when he was young and began drawing and painting at an early age, too early to remember. In Seattle, Durgin-Barnes continued drawing and eventually discovered skateboarding and graffiti, which led him to Jesse Edwards.
by George Goodell
Edwards introduced Durgin-Barnes to oil painting, sparking his career as an artist. Over the following decade Durgin-Barnes moved around a lot; San Francisco, Oakland, Reno, Portland and, eventually, Brooklyn, where he now resides in an apartment-studio (studio-apartment?) in Williamsburg with his girlfriend, his cat and his pet iguana.
“It’s hard,” Durgin-Barnes tells me as I begin recording our conversation, “to balance becoming successful and staying true to yourself as an artist.” His entire life Durgin-Barnes has been fascinated by representational painting. As a kid he would read nature books and wander the wooded hiking paths of Washington state, trying to make drawings that capture the feeling, rather than the details, of being surrounded by nature. When he began working with oil paint he studied, and fell in love with, the “old masters:” Nicolas Poussin, Pierre Paul Prud’hon, Michelangelo. Classical and neo-classical influences are clear in almost all of Durgin-Barnes’s paintings, which tend to feature incredibly detailed subjects in classically styled and noble compositions. The exact details of the scenes are less important than their arrangement, which conveys the feeling, and the message, of the painting.
“I’m obsessed with allegory,” Durgin-Barnes mentions as he tells me about a holy grail conspiracy theory based in the angle of the shadow of an arm in Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego . The overwhelming allegorical message in Durgin-Barnes’s work seems to be one of deep discomfort with capitalism. Tiny features like the letters “U.S.A.” below the striped U.S. flag on the back of a dancing woman in The Initiation of Pineapple , or the McDonald’s sign stretching high in the air behind smoking buildings and dying soldiers in War , convey an Orwellian attitude toward an omnipresent capitalist order. Even the use of light and shadow to accentuate a burning temple in the background of Mayan on Day of the Zenith , or the brightness of the shattered glass on which wild dancing naked women are reflected in Florida Ttripp convey a dark beauty buried beneath these disquieting scenes.
The subjects of Durgin-Barnes’s paintings, the centerpieces, might be seen to convey this message on capitalism just as much as the details do, albeit in a different, more spiritual way. The classical style of Durgin-Barnes’s paintings as it is applied to many of their subjects (skillfully and seriously) seems to contribute, or amount, to something downright religious.
Taken on their own, crack addicts, piles of trash, biker gangs, dancing naked women, sardines, and iguanas are not religious or spiritual. But by painting these subjects with such skill, and such mastery of classical and neo-classical techniques, Durgin-Barnes is able to impart mystical, immortal significance to these martyrs of American capitalism.
For Durgin-Barnes, this mystical element comes from rock n’ roll music. Traditional harmonies and melodies (classical and neo-classical painting techniques) applied to (crude? vulgar? grotesque?) nonclassical subject matter. This rock n’ roll sensibility and passion comes across in Epithets of Integrity , Durgin-Barnes’s mistakenly dubbed ‘first’ solo show at Treason Gallery in Seattle in September, 2017. The show was a huge success artistically for Durgin-Barnes, opening several new platforms on which to sell his work (artsy.net/artwork/andrew-durgin-barnes/, treasongallery.com/andrewbarnes/) and garnering attention in the elusive world of art.
Financially, Epithets of Integrity was lackluster at best. Durgin-Barnes only sold one work from the show, barely enough to cover his cost of living and painting for a month in New York. In an ironic way, Durgin-Barnes is as much a victim of the capitalist society to which he belongs as the drug dependent subjects of his paintings. In order to keep painting, to keep working, he has to sell his work. And after a difficult first year in New York, he feels a temptation to turn down the amps, to tone back the rock n’ roll attitude so prevalent in his works in Epithets of Integrity . But I hope that for us, as well as for himself, Durgin-Barnes can find a way to stay true to himself as an artist and to continue working in the capitalist society that seems to ignore him.