A Painter Must Paint, No Matter What Happens

Going back to his works of the Seventies and a painting of an artist painting in the chaos of his studio, Bill Barrell expresses his feelings for the hope that is out there for the artists who continues to paint, day in – day out, year in – year out, no matter what is going on around them.
Night Painting
Night Painting, 16 x 22, 1975, oil on canvas

–    The studio has become a constant theme in my work because that is where I spend most of my time. I finished this painting, “Night Painting”, back in the mid-Seventies. The artist at the easel appears very calm while all around him in the studio there is turmoil. He is surrounded by other works, some finished, the others still in progress. Also there are works by other artists and stuff such as old tea cups, books, photographs and plants trying to survive the paint fumes.  I didn’t stuggle with the paint in this painting, it was laid down fast and with a sure hand.  It is the artist at work figuring out his life and personal feelings.

When I made this painting in 1975, much of the art being made was in the minimal vein. There was a group of artists who were natural expressionists.  Our feelings of isolation led us all together and we formed the group called “Rhino Horn”.  I am not sure where we came up with the name Rhino Horn. I don’t think any of the group tried rhino horn for its aphrodisiac qualities. I believe instead that we all associated with the rhinoceros for its tough qualities and ability to stand its ground.   Two of the members of Rhino Horn have sinced died since this group was formed and one currently lives in Columbia. The remaining three, Peter Passuntino, Jay Milder and I have been invited to talk on a panel at “Artists Talk on Art” on March 25th.  I find this very encouraging and the invitation takes me back to our first panel talk in 1979 when we were invited to talk by Bob Wiegand. It was a very lively event.

But I have also been encouraged by two articles that appeared recently in the New York Times Art Section. One is by Roberta Smith (Post Minimal to the Max – Feb 10, 2010) and the other by Holland Cotter (History Lesson in Abstraction, Cutting Across America – Feb. 19, 2010). They report that the museums and galleries are looking more closely at artists who got overlooked in the recent past and who are still working regardless of being bypassed. I know it is not unusual for one movement in art to be overshadowed by another in this day and age. I have learned that many artists leaving art school now expect to graduate and step right into a gallery. I am sure this does happen and I wish all the more power to them. But I  find it very encouraging indeed that there may be artists who will be re-evaluated and that their work will come out of the shadows of obscurity and will be seen in a new light.

Dancing Paint

A painting may begin with just an idea or a stroke of the brush, but as Bill Barrell will tell you…. 

Dancing Paint
Dancing Paint, oil on canvas painting, 2009

– Paintings often spring out of nowhere. Working on a blank canvas for me is great.  I am not a format painter, so I am left free to look at things and feel things in a different way. Here in this work, I started out wanting to just deal with squares, or square-like shapes. The square shapes worked well alone, but I had a nagging feeling something could be added to make it work even better. It’s a bit of a gamble as one can take a perfectly good work and mess it up! At the same time – once the idea of adding to a painting takes hold, there is no going back.

Often this approach backfires and one can end up with an awful mess. However, when it works, it gives a great feeling of confidence. When it doesn’t work it means taking the mess you have made and heading in a totally different direction. I can never give up on a painting. I wrestle with it until it works.

One time in frustration at what was showing up on the canvas, I tore it into one inch bands and then braided the canvas back together. It worked well as it totally destroyed the image I was wrestling with and it resurfaced into a beautiful object that I could hang on the wall like a quilt.

This painting ended up quite well. The circle shapes did what I wanted them to do by bringing the square shapes to life. It’s as if all the shapes have dancing partners – they give each other motion. The surface becomes vibrant without being eye popping. I named this painting, “Dancing Paint.” –

Thoughts on Myron Stout

Today Bill Barrell reflects on time spent in Provincetown in the late fifties and his friendships with the artists Myron Stout and Tony Vevers.

The Painter, 48"x68", 1976
The Painter, oil on canvas painting, 48" x 68", 1976

– During my early years, from 1957 to 1960, I lived year-round in Provincetown and was very dependent on other artists. Two of those artists were Myron Stout and Tony Vevers.  These two artists (and Tony’s family) were very supportive in those long dark winters on the Cape.

I was not only influenced by Tony Vever’s and Myron Stout’s paintings, but I was also influenced by their lifestyles. Tony loved to cook and Myron talked about cooking in an expert way, like a real gourmet. I was young, fresh from London – used to meat and potato type food.   We would all eat in Tony’s tiny kitchen in his small apartment/studio with dormer windows. It was a bohemian garret style.

When Tony’s kids were put to bed, we would sit and discuss the pros and cons of quahogs and piss clams and drink Tavola, a cheap California wine, from a gallon jug. I was not used to the kind of discussions that took place. Tony would get out his poetry books – Dylan Thomas, Keats and ee cummings. Both Stout and Vevers were university graduates, so I did a lot more listening than talking. Having finished school at age fourteen, which was as far as the school year went in 1945, I was no match for their university debating abilities. I made up for it with my street smarts and my cockney humor. We would read and drink into the night. On leaving, I would walk with Myron Stout to his studio, bid him good night and stagger on home.

One funny and memorable occasion came about on a picnic trip. It was a beautiful spring day in 1959. Tony, Elspeth and the kids Stephanie and Tabitha, Myron and I all went to a meadow that had a brook meandering through it. Spreading out our picnic, we lounged around sipping wine and enjoying the bucolic surroundings. At one point, I took the kids down to the brook. It was not deep, about three feet wide with meadow flowers growing along the banks. As I looked, I suddenly realized that there were hundreds of trout swimming in it!

Now having lived in Scotland as a child, I had experience with trout and had tried to catch them by tickling them under the belly! I hollered up to Tony, “We have dinner here!” He ran down and we jumped in the water -chasing fish all over the place. We ended up with a dozen and returned to the picnic. Myron, who was laying by the picnic like a figure out of Manet’s Luncheon in the Park, told us that he happened to have a wonderful recipe for trout. That night at Tony’s, we put Myron’s recipe to work. It was a grand meal. The next day, after being told of our grand trout feast, a local said to us, “You silly buggers. You had a herring feast. That was a herring run and it’s illegal to take fish from a herring run!”

Myron once had Tony and I do some carpentry in his studio. It was there in his studio where I was first exposed to Myron Stout’s work. It was a bit odd to me but I was drawn to it. The paintings were not too large, maybe 40×42. He was painting very simple shapes that sat somewhat in the center of the canvas. The color was black and white, the two colorless colors. The shape would be a bit like an Arp sculpture, only flat.  A “u” shape would hold a ball shape not touching the sides of the U. It would float in there. I thought of a ball just before being caught in a game of baseball. He was meticulous. Tony and I had once  joked about how  Myron would use a one-hair paintbrush. He took forever to finish a piece. Those paintings stay with me to this day. When I need to explain plasticity, I use Myron Stout and Mondrian. There is a feeling about the surface of the paint that puts it right up front. The colors touch, but do not interfere with one another. They stay flat.

In this painting ” Painter”, I had Myron Stout in mind. I wanted to combine my exuberance with his calm shapes. The shapes and forms do not resemble Stout’s, but I was thinking of how he put black and white together and made it interesting and alive. I could not resist the figurative image that surfaced, but I was happy with the black and white of a figure pitted against the artist who is not in contrast and in shadows. –

Fascinating Cows

What happens when you take a little ten year old boy out of the big city and send him to the countryside?  He just might see things and do things that are so different from his previous experience that they may stay with him forever. Today Bill Barrell remembers his youth and those cows from the English countryside. He tells how they instigated his fascination with cows and why they keep showing up in his paintings.

Cows of Canada
Canadian Cows

– Cows. I have always had a fascination with cows. It goes back to the beginning of World War Two.

Early in the war the winter of 1941 , one of the coldest winters in the recorded history of weather in England, my mother became sick with pleurisy and was hospitalized . My brother, two sisters and I were moved from our home in London and placed in the home of Dr. Bernados.  While there, Terry, my elder brother, was put in charge of some of the  milk supplies. At one point, somebody had begun to water the milk down. Terry reported it. It caused a ruckus and we were  transferred to an estate in Norfolk .

In Norfolk, we had to go out and play after tea and it was very cold . We would wander into a field and make cows get up so we could lay in their warm spot . When that spot got cold we would move to the next cow . So began my liking of cows!

Later, when I was evacuated to a farm in the north of England, I would help the farmer milk his cows. One time a cow got into a clover patch a ended up with a bad case of gas.  They can die from a gas attack.  The vet was sent for and I stood by and watched him cut a hole in its side, insert a tube and release the gas. I often held the cow’s head during this process. Another time in the middle of the night, I helped the farmer birth a calf. That’s when I learned a calf came out feet first. This was quite a lot of learning for a Cockney boy of  ten.

Many years later I visited my younger brother Budge in the countryside of Canada.  There was a huge dairy farm down in a valley.  One afternoon I went for a walk  and as I looked across the meadow, there were the cows wending their way to the milking barns. What amazed me was that they were in single file on one little path that went around a hill out of sight . They were so calm and placid, no pushing or shoving and when one would stop – the one behind it would stop. It was a grand sight.  You know, not too long ago, there was an outbreak of mad cow disease that disturbed me.  There was no reason for it to happen.  It had been predicted in 1945 that if cows were fed meat they would go mad.  It was all based on greed.  It led me to do what I do not normally do, I painted a mad cow series.  “Canadian Cows” does not come from that series ( Mad Cows – a blog for another time), but this painting comes from the scene I took in while I was in Canada.

What Do We Have Here – the studio visitation


What exactly do we have here? Probably a question asked by many when viewing figurative expressionist art. Bill Barrell talks a little about what he sees in his painting “The Studio Visitation” as well as his thoughts on models and muses.

Studio Visitation
The Studio Visitation, oil on canvas painting

– Picasso and Matisse seemed to have no end of models, but I suspect that they often used old memories when they painted. Especially Picasso, who would paint late into the night when most of his models or wives would be tucked safely into their beds.  I have never been in a financial situation that allows me the privilege to hire models. When a painting begins to lead me into what is starting to look like a figure, I allow it to carry me off in that direction. The female figure divine, as it was called at one time, is an enchanting and mysterious image. Male painters are fortunate to have this vision, their muse as a woman.  (I cannot speak for women as I can’t see the male form in the same way as they do.) The female comes in a variety of shapes and forms, old and young, but always intriguing.  They are the ones who create us. They are the ones who we bonded with first and they are the ones who have nurtured us. As men, all we can do is help in a small way to make the situation come about.

Well, one of the beauties of painting is that the painting will always retain its true and secret meaning. Not even the artist can know the true meaning as the painting often comes together at a moment when the artist is not aware of what has happened. When looking at paintings it is best to absorb the feeling of the work rather than what it means. Take the Mona Lisa for instance. What is going on in her mind? I can hazard some guesses. Did she and Leonardo make love? Has she just laid a fart and is thinking, no one will ever know? Perhaps a thought has just crossed her mind of how she wished she were nude in front of Leonardo. Perhaps Leonardo has just winked at her. It could be something totally benign like, did I leave the laundry out again. The thing is – we will never know and if we did, where would lie the interest in Mona Lisa?

Now, in my painting, The Studio Visitation, what do we have? He looks somewhat surprised, but is he really? Is she dressing or undressing?  It looks like her breasts have arrived ahead of her. She is giving him a penetrating look as if to say, “you know why I am here.” She is looking a little angry. Has he forgotten something? She is also showing a goodly amount of thigh. Could the breasts and the inner thigh be a tempation? Or is it just his imagination undressing her? Whatever is about to happen will have witnesses who are lurking in the background. An eavesdropper and a young woman – his daughter perhaps? It is definitely all taking place in his studio as he does not look too disturbed. Perhaps this is a model from his imagination that he would like to hire. Perhaps he forgot to pick the kid up from school.

We will never know. It is a moment in time – caught in an emotional way and frozen forever. Leaving us with the painting and eternal question to return to – what do we have here? –