My Father's House: On Will Barnet's Paintings
by Thomas Dumm
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2014
144 pp. Trade, $24.95
Reviewed by Florence Martellini
The author, Thomas Dumm, had developed an intimate relationship with the late painter Will Barnet. He first attempted to write a book about Barnet's philosophy of art but felt that his knowledge of philosophy, which has been an important part of Barnet's existence, was too limited. So he gave up the project. Instead, he decided to write about Barnet's life, supported by a visual biography of his family.
So what is this book exactly about? As Dumm says, "It is a book about the Barnet family of Beverly, Massachusetts". But not just any book in that its life is conveyed through a series of paintings named My Father's House created by the eldest son, Will Barnet. The introduction not only sets the context for what follows but also raises valuable questions about our life journey and how we go about it, about memories and how they profoundly affect us in many respects throughout our existence.
Each artwork is, then, supported by an essay, which not only describes it technically but also brings it into context by adding information about the Barnet family dynamic and issues. Dumm has clearly spent a lot of time with Barnet to reach such a level of detailed information. These essays raise also general philosophical questions about family life, death, ancestors, and memories that keep haunting us like angels and ghosts do, time and being able to be in the present to escape the realm of constant distraction in which we live, our senses, in particular, the hands, and so on. Barnet's older sister Eva, who in 1990 was living alone in her father's house, inspired his paintings. She was suffering from mental illness, hallucinating the presence of departed members of the family. Observing how and when she would touch her face with her hands Barnet could guess when she was seeing images of the past. "This is the past that is no longer there, still present in a ghostly form. This is the past she was seeing, the ghosts of the family gone" Dumm wrote. But couldn't she see something else or be somewhere else?
The principle behind My Father's House is extremely laudable in that it encourages us to get used to really looking at visual artworks in detail, to question their reasons of being, how we perceive them or simply to enjoy a visual hunting. Repeating this approach with other artworks will, over time, teach us to take the responsibility of interpreting artworks ourselves without relying on stories that curators and art historians tell us about them. Instead of staying at the surface and moving on to the next artwork, we learn to take our time, to appreciate the painting beyond a mere object of decoration or a pure commodity. We should feel different after the contemplation of good artworks. Details can be the object, figure, form, shape, colour, tone or simply atmosphere that participate to create the whole image. Details can also be the odd objects or the unusual composition that disturb the overall balance of a painting. For example, in The Vase why is the vase tucked away in the corner of the painting since it is the object of the title? Such an experience becomes a never-ending journey taking us beyond the image itself.
Bearing in mind that we see with our brain, interpretation can be very personal in that 'what you see is not what I see'. Dumm gives his valid personal perception and viewpoint, tainted by Barnet's own take on the related story, but he does not open enough space for us to forge our own ideas. For example, in The Family (The Kitchen), it is a given fact the man sitting on the left hand side with a hat on and a bird on his shoulder is the father. Couldn't he be a female? Hence, all the way through we feel controlled as to what we should see and how we should interpret it. Dumm uses open questions too rarely and they are often not broad enough to allow for exploration to create our own realm, our personal interpretation. For example, we sense that Eva lives in another dimension from the others. She is pulled towards and bathed in rays of lights. Dumm claims that for Barnet these rays of light render Eva's state of mind when she thinks about the members of the family gone. But could it be that she was instead looking forward, moving into another realm, dimension? She might have perceived something that the others did not. This sort of option is rarely hinted at or offered to us and little space is let for our own imagination.
The resolution of the images is sometimes not high enough to let us decipher some of the nuances and details. For example, in Three Windows Dumm states that we are in the bedroom that Eva shared with her sister Jeannette. But the actual bed is very difficult to see until we are told it is there. Hence, we rely on Dumm's essay to perceive it. However, we can approach this book differently by only looking at the paintings first, without relying on the essays. The images are very powerful in themselves even though we occasionally cannot distinguish every detail. They bring out a strong presence in a Hopper minimalist fashion. When you look at them, the world has stopped. It is all quiet, intriguing and even daunting. Nothing much seems to happen, they are rather bare but if we look closer we are finding out that each detail as well as the actual composition have their 'raison d'être'. Just a line can bring doubt into how the represented space is organised. For example, in The Vase we are unsure whether or not the two sisters are in the same room. Solely the atmosphere in Barnet's painting hypnotises and pulls us into the scenes staging the family members. But do all these characters have to be related? Can't we create our own story by taking a different angle when reading this series of images?
My Father's House unusually invites us to simply take the time to look at paintings, without a manipulating marketing or commercial agenda hidden behind. And I do acclaim Dumm for this wonderful initiative, which also reminds us how much we live in a world of constant distraction. Slowing down to appreciate its details can open up unsuspected realms and moments of joy. All the essays clearly reveal an in-depth research and a close collaboration with a powerful artist. They sometimes though lack room for us to relate our own life and issues to, to fully participate. The good reflections raised in the introduction leave us to wish somewhat for more depth in what follows. Or are they simply pointers? Dumm warns us in his preface that he is not a philosopher. This book reminds us that any representation of reality is only a point of view. Barnet was the one who knew his family best, but his paintings are his take on his family; Dumm knows Barnet well, but his essays are his take on what Barnet painted and told him, etc. However, we can use them as a guide to write our own story. This series of paintings is of such a quality that supporting words to help us appreciate them are not really needed anyway. The images speak for themselves.