“James Barsness: Mill Valley”, ARTnews

James Barsness: Mill Valley

by Susan Cummins, ARTnews 

In the last ten years Jim Barsness has moved from the West Coast to the East Coast and back again. Nothing in his work seems to correspond obviously with these changes. Most of the drawings in this show have been done on old, canvas-mounted schoolroom maps of Europe. Only the show’s centerpiece, The Tower, incorporates as collage elements maps of New York and Los Angeles, as well as travel brochures, casino coupon, comics, and other printed matter.

The Tower is thrillingly complex. Drawn in ballpoint pen and adapted from The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Barsness’ tower is an absurd spiral structure that rises to an altitude that Bruegel’s builders could only dream of.

The figures that circulate through Barsness’ structure, though, look more related to Bosch than Bruegel. Some are human; others are weird hybrids of human and animal that engage in unabashed lust or in odd rituals with weaponry along the tower’s ledges. The overlay of map topography and illusionistic landscape and its wealth of detail make it one of the finest works by Barsness to date.

Others amplified The Tower’s symbolism of unfettered ambition as a corrupting influence. In The Tower Guard, for example, a nude female strides across a two-panel historical map entitled “The Balkan States,” accompanied by a bipedal jack-o’-lantern and a weevil-like creature on whose back rides an ugly, trumpeting gnome. The naked woman in spike heels is perhaps a modern Athena, stripped of mythic graces. The erotic undertone of the drawing becomes explicit in a couple of other drawings, where an insect-like man mounts a dog-woman on a topographic ground of Central Europe. Here the euphemism “lust for power” is made terribly clear.