“Barsness Art at Catharine Clark,” San Francisco Chronicle

Barsness Art at Catharine Clark

By Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle


Barsness and Knoll at Catharine Clark: Former Bay Area resident James Barsness presents big paintings at Catharine Clark embodying a personal take on mythologies that at some level may have ruled the world.

When contemporary artists toy with mythologies, they generally do so in a caustic critical spirit. Barsness brings a fair quotient of skepticism to the task, but his love of making things sets his work’s tone.

In “Weight Loss Jesus” (2007), Barsness cobbles together in his own cartoonish style legends and art motifs associated with Jesus: the Pieta, the calming of the Sea of Galilee, St. Christopher.

In early Christian lore, St. Christopher bore across a river a child who inexplicably and crushingly gained weight as they proceeded, finally revealing himself as the resurrected savior. “Weight Loss Jesus” makes burlesque of this legend, among others, tying it to the downgrading in hope for miracles that marks today’s cultural obsessions.

“Hanuman’s Rescue” (2008) depicts the monkey king of Hindu lore bestriding an elephant and locked in congress with a strange blue consort, a figure associated more with Tantric Buddhist than Hindu-inspired art. A tangle of other creatures and what look like Arts and Crafts wallpaper motifs engulf the mythical hero. Surely Hanuman, Hieronymous Bosch and William Morris have never come this close to meeting before.

Work this intricately designed, even by an artist as confident as Barsness, with his daring use of color and mixed media, usually strikes me as airless and prone to quick exhaustion.

But repeated encounters with his pictures leave me believing that over time they might continue to divulge surprises, aspects that wormed their way into his compositional patterns without even the painter himself realizing it.

Philip Knoll’s paintings keep good company with Barsness’, partly because of their dependence on drawing, partly because of their bitter humor.

Under the general title “Paradise Found,” Knoll satirizes the abstract painting ideal of all-over composition with edge-to-edge networks of big-eyed, gloved cartoon figures that poke, squeeze, suck and choke one another or otherwise join in an orgy of old-fashioned connectivity.

Networking never looked so bad.