“conversation with the kid”
“who’s the guy on the glass?
joyce, that’s a girl’s name.
that’s a name.
well, what’s with him?
he watches over me.
he only got one eye.
a guy like him that’s all he needs.”[i]
The poems of Patti Smith are simultaneously cutting and fanciful, getting at a certain truth even as they weave myths, fantasies and contemporary literature together. There are several statements made by Smith that remind me of another artist’s work, the contemporary painter Robert Barnes. Whether in a poem by Smith or a painting by Barnes, we definitely witness a series of visual ambiguities and associative shifts taking place.
“a coronet of stars
ornament of the tame
no one to bow to
to vow to
how did i die?
i tried to walk thru light
with tangled hair
not yet prepared
for the valley of combat.”[ii]
“have you seen
it got wings
it can fly
if you speak
of it to him
it’s the only
can’t look you in the eye”
“have you seen
it got wings
it can fly
when it lands
like a clown
he’s the only
to look Dylan in the eye”[iii]
They both, Patti Smith and Robert Barnes, have their idols and inspirations, an assortment of creative and eccentric characters. For Barnes these include: James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Arthur Craven, Jeremy Bentham, and Tristan Tzara. And Smith: again James Joyce, William S. Burrows, Jean Genet, Andre Breton, Arthur Rimbaud, and Bob Dylan. Magicians and tricksters they are, in both words and images. Smith masquerading as Dylan, and Barnes often using the analogy of the slight of hand embodied in the old time ‘table cloth’ trick!
“dishes crank on my nerves”[iv]
During the fall of 2015 the Indiana University Art Museum held a retrospective of Robert Barnes’ work, “Grand Illusions: Late Works 1985-2015.” This was such a powerful show, and it was the second such exhibition of his work that I have seen in person. In his remarks at the opening Barnes mentioned several influential books including: “The Golden Bough” by James George Frazer, “The White Goddess” by Robert Graves, and “Ulysses” by James Joyce. Using these examples, he noted how a subject unfolds as it is invented in his paintings. A narrative transformation of sorts takes place.[v]
“Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey” was the earlier exhibition organized by the Madison Art Center in Wisconsin, which travelled to the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, and several other national locations. The main essay for this catalogue was written by the Chicago critic and curator Dennis Adrian, and set about describing and defining many of the issues and ideas that flow through this work.
“The complex, shifting, and many-layered sense of a larger reality has important correspondences in Barmes’s (sic) various literary and artistic enthusiasms. Among the most significant of these is his love and regard for the writing of James Joyce. In fact, Barnes’ method and effects are like the continuous unreeling present in Joyce’s Ulysses, where the events of Leopold Bloom’s day are experienced by both him and the reader as shifting and overlapping elements of feeling, observation, memory, fantasy, imagination, conflation of past and present…all of which are rooted in the structure, incidents, and characters of Homer’s Odyssey.”[vi]
“In both Joyce and Barnes, the ‘subject,’ so to speak, is created and even invented freshly for us, but it also contains, through parallels of structure, allusion, or direct reference, a connection with other realms of experience, ‘actual,’ artistic, or both….The elements in Barnes’ paintings which feel like the record or recollections of some specific actuality help to create a forceful presence for his abstract inventions and the curious forms which we seem to recognize but cannot identify, that is, the things which we know about perceptually but cannot name.”[vii]
More recently, I wrote to Robert Barnes to ask him about his work and especially his interest in James Joyce. He graciously responded:
“When I attended the University of Chicago in the fifties I was fortunate to have as a friend the poet Paul Carroll who wanted to be James Joyce! We had as a drinking companion an Irishman who was then the answerman for the now defunct Chicago Daily News! He was at one time an actor at the Abbey Theatre in the old country! If we bought him drinks he would recite complete Irish plays (all the parts)!”
“At one time he undertook the reading of Ulysses! He could do the plays verbatim but read Joyce from a book! He claimed it had to be read with an Irish accent and I believe he was right! It took him several evenings and lots of booze but was well worth it and gave me a life long love of things Joycean!”
“I have been fortunate in to have encountered inspiring people at the right time (it seems magical)! Even without an Irish accent I think it a good idea to read Ulysses aloud or at least part of it….it is a life changing experience!”[viii]
Racing through a day in Dublin, in a stream of consciousness, Ulysses proceeds with abandon to its conclusion. Its characters and stories often parallel the paintings of Robert Barnes. Not only in his painting of Joyce, but in many other subjects, Barnes has created a cast of invented characters and self-portrait equivalents that exist within the spatial logic of both painting and poetry.
At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, the Joyce family often used a local Dublin painter for family portraits. This task went to Patrick Tuohy, who required James Joyce to sit daily for almost a month. With tensions building between the artist and the writer as the work went on, Joyce became increasingly irritable, and it has been noted: “…he was impatient with the artist’s pretensions: ‘Never mind my soul. Just be sure you have my tie right.’”[ix]
“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon.
In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”[x]
[i] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 13.
[ii] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 163.
[iii] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; pp. 22-23.
[iv] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 53.
[v] A discussion between Robert Barnes and Michael Brooks that took place during the opening ceremonies of the “Robert Barnes: Grand Illusions, Late Works 1985-2015” exhibition at the Indiana University Museum of Art, Bloomington, Indiana. From my notes taken during that program, 25 September 2015.
[vi] Adrian, Dennis; “Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey;” The Madison Art Center; Madison, Wisconsin; 1984; p. 10.
[vii] Adrian, Dennis; “Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey;” The Madison Art Center; Madison, Wisconsin; 1984; p. 10.
[viii] Barnes, Robert; from an e-mail correspondence with this writer on 24 March 2020, at 11:53 am.
[ix] Joyce, James; Ulysses; Everyman’s Library; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, and Toronto; 1997; p. xxviii.
[x] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. x.