“James Barsness”, The San Francisco Examiner



At the Susan Cummins Gallery, 12 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, L.A. based artist Jim Barsness deals with the collapse of empires ancient and modern and the vanity of human wishes. (The show continues through Dec. 4.)

In several works, old school maps serve as his drawing surface. Over maps that show Germany’s border changes from 1740 to 1930, he has drawn a woman gnawing on a bone. Over a map of the changes of the Balkan states, he has drawn a brazen woman in red high heels dancing to the strange music of a pumpkin-man playing a guitar.

The Tower

The central work here is a nearly 10-foot wide drawing and collage on canvas titled “The Tower.” In his gallery statement, Barsness coolly states, “Empires have life spans and their collapse and rebirth occurs naturally. We see this on a daily basis.” His intuition was to refigure Pieter Bruegel’s famous image of a crumbling Tower of Babel in contemporary terms.

The result is a tour de force of picture making. Against a ground of maps of present-day nations and cities, bordered with odd cartoons, labels and photos, Barsness has drawn with his characteristic blue-ink ballpoint pen his version of Bruegel’s squat but nonetheless impertinent tower. His statement continues, “The building is a monumental folly, grandly conceived to reach God but of course doomed from the start by human caprice, misunderstanding and frailty.”

Barsness has created a centered, idealized Renaissance-style structure that starts out boldly but rises to a timid pinnacle. The upper stories are uninhabited, but the lower levels are marked by every variety of human folly, vice and vanity, with mechanical fornication the rule.

Like most moralists, Barsness’ vision of human activity is horrific. His robotic little figures, reminiscent of both Hieronymous Bosch’s monsters and contemporary sculptor Tom Otterness’ humanoids, go about their dirty deeds with mindless glee, and they plug every available orifice with an obscene drive to connect. Barsness is particularly adept at creating sexual monsters — legless dogs with bulging sexual members and skinny priapic men. His women are shaven-beaded like concentration camp inmates.

Barsness exhibits a perhaps unjustified sense of hope, however. Bruegle’s tower is crumbling from the top on down. Barsness’ is uninhabited at the top and, for the moment, uncorrupted. The task at hand would seem to be to stem the contagion and protect the upper levels. In my view, the rot starts at the top, and the time for cleansing has long since passed.