2022, acrylic on canvas, 50" x 45"
As far as I can tell, Pat Barrett happily lacked the chameleon gene and was impervious to trends. He was an artist that was dedicated to his work, and I loved it when he described his time in the studio as “cheap thrills.” I am certain that both the irony and the sincerity of this frequently repeated declaration were entirely intentional - the irony being that after adding up art school, supplies, a studio, and time, nothing about being a painter is cheap; the sincerity being that, for all it’s potential for frustration, heartbreak, and tears, a single bad day of painting and drawing is infinitely better than a week at a fancy resort or five-star hotel. That may be overstating it a bit, but you get the picture.
Pat spoke about painting in a way that resonated - and still resonates - with me. He described it as being in touch with materials and techniques as well as rhythms and movements; of letting go of a strict, linear narrative; of allowing gestural, figurative suggestions to casually saunter into an otherwise abstract composition; of not repeating himself and always feeling like he was moving forward; of not being bound by anyone else’s rules, only his own. He knew a painting was finished when it felt right, and he wasn’t afraid to paint over entire canvases when they felt wrong. He had a fearless, unsentimental streak that served him well in the studio.
When I look at Pat’s work - especially the work of the last five years - I’m struck by his ability to hint at stability emerging out of chaos. His compositions are overflowing with calligraphic marks that at first appear to be endlessly speeding up, ramping up dangerously close to light speed. The more I look, though, the more I see his brushstrokes coalescing, linking up in ways that suggest conversations taking place rather than a detached series of intersecting monologues. These are paintings that know how to both speak and to listen. The intimate exchanges tucked into his highly gestural compositions slow Barrett’s paintings down enough to see how they are truly in the moment. In an untitled painting from 2022 (see above), for example, thick, steel and sky blue strokes pull over the top of the canvas, partially blocking out three or four horizontal bands in deep indigo and a tangle of yellow and brown. Rather than canceling each other out, they amplify one another, linking up to create an idiosyncratic sense of structure that is both solid and open. I also can’t help but see the angles, twists, and turns of arms, legs, and torsos. As in so many of Barrett’s paintings, they are forms and marks at the three-way intersection of architecture, the body, and nothing at all.
Pat died recently, and I have to admit, this is a tough one. There’s no other way to describe it. Although the word disorienting keeps coming to mind, so I’ll add that as well. It’s tough and disorienting to start a project (this interview) with someone, and then finish it alone. The same goes for knowing that after multiple conversations and two hefty studio visits, Pat Barrett will never see this little bit of writing that tries to express how much I admired him, what I was drawn to in his work, and why I keep looking at it. Barrett did his part, though, for which I’m forever grateful. With the help of his wife, Gail, he spent a portion of his last summer responding to the Semi-Finalist questions, and I feel so incredibly lucky and moved that he did.
Pat Barrett in his studio.
The Semi-Finalist: Talk about your early years as a visual artist. I know that you also spent some time playing music. What was it like trying to balance two creative outlets while still in your twenties?
Pat Barrett: I grew up in orchards planted by my great grandparents in a rural part of Northern California. My childhood was filled with sensations of the natural world, space, shape, and color. The generations in my family before me were all makers. Master builder, seamstress, writer, inventor, photographer. They did all of these things in the context of still running a ranch. I started drawing when I was very young and a foundation in drawing forms the groundwork of my painting. After my mother’s death, I found a portfolio of drawings saved in a closet that I thought was work that could have been done by me. It turned out the drawings were done by my mother when she was young and I was surprised by how they had the same hand, the same choices, a similar sensibility to my work. I never knew that she could draw. But looking at her drawings confirmed for me how the urge to draw is the substance of what informs me as an artist.
I earned my BFA and MFA at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. After graduation I maintained a studio in the city and continued to explore my interest in abstract painting. At Otis I had discovered avant garde music (John Cage, Luciano Berio, Kathy Barberian, David Tudor, Robert Ashley and others) and would spend time making sound collages of their work using a tape recorder. That form of music, which is essentially abstract, synced up with my understanding of how the elements and principles of painting worked on an abstract level. When I look back at those early paintings, I see the beginnings of a movement towards more expressionistic imagery. In graduate school I worked a lot with serial imagery and in that LA work I can see where I was working to resolve one form in the context of the other.
2022, acrylic on canvas, 44" x 48"
I eventually moved back to rural northern California and began working on what I think of as process oriented abstract paintings. I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on supplies and I had to work with a kind of economy. Working with less trained me to listen closely to my intuition for direction, to make decisions while working that were based on signals that were unclear but motivating. That is what I mean by process. I still find that it is feeling that lands me on the painting surface, an urge to articulate what isn’t yet formed.
Music has always been integral to what is happening in my paintings. In my late 20’s and into my 30’s I was in a band. We wrote and played original work, grown out of improvising words and sounds, and performed in venues in San Francisco. I sang and played trombone. I also experimented a lot with playing the shortwave radio. I combined that work with the visuals of my paintings. I loved playing live music, but it was hard to sustain both painting and playing, not creatively, but time was the issue. There wasn’t enough of it. People have often commented that they hear sound when they look at my work.
When you are asking me these things about early years and balancing music and painting, I am reminded that I don’t really have a linear sense of time.
2020, acrylic on canvas, 56"x 50"
S-F: One of the things I really enjoyed talking about when I was in your studio was the process of painting and the process of finishing a painting. Can you elaborate on your relationship to those two inevitably coupled subjects?
PB: For me making a painting is making an object. I decide on a size and shape, choose stretcher bars and canvas and build it. At that point, I am committed to evolving the object as a painting. It is more of a commitment to see it through if I already have the canvas on the stretcher bars. Some paintings resolve and come together quickly. Others take weeks and months to come to a resolution and there may be lots of attempts to make one of those paintings work.
What gets me painting are essentially formal concerns: creating structural opportunities to enter the picture plane with content. My approach beyond mechanical structuring is in large part emotional. The way I use color is subjective and sometimes random. Composing is improvisational, around some kernel of an idea or feeling. I am interested in creating a visual representation that has impact psychologically, emotionally and intellectually.
2022, acrylic on canvas, 56" x 48"
Much of the time working on a painting is spent observing the painting. The series of actions are layered over time. I know it is done because it works on a formal level and then on subjective levels of feeling and intuition. When you are forming a painting it begins to draw you in, it can repel you as well, but when the painting draws you into itself more than demanding of you that you solve something, then you know you want to look at it instead of changing it. The trick is to keep the painting fresh. A lot of times my paintings can become really dense. I have to really work to keep it fresh so that it doesn’t look confusing and overworked. I often refer to these paintings, the dense ones, as being in the trenches.
2022, acrylic on canvas, 46" x 50"
S-F: Your work is largely abstract, but you don’t shy away from gestures, lines, and forms that suggest the figure or objects in space. Talk about that.
PB: Playing with light and gesture, for example, puts my painting into a realm that evokes a sense of place and a kind of ground for interaction not unlike improvisation around a musical idea. The way that I work chose me. I have a huge appreciation for all forms. I am in love with figurative drawing and painting as well as with highly reductive, abstract work. I think that working the way I do gives me opportunities to tap into a kind of ineffable area that transcends linear time. Imposing linear concepts would only interrupt my intuitive flow.
2021, acrylic on canvas, 50" x 46"
S-F: When did you start your series of ink drawings on Yupo and how do they relate to your larger acrylic paintings?
PB: In 2018 I had a surgery that for a couple of months left me unable to build large canvasses or move bigger pieces around. I needed to work. I had done some small pieces using acrylic ink on paper and decided to try ink on a non-absorbent surface. Working on a slick surface using a transparent medium gave me effects that pleased me. I also experimented with non-conventional tools.
The imagery and marks in both forms are related but the process of creating them is different. Light and white in the drawings are the paper, not ink or paint. The yupo drawings take minutes to work and are purely spontaneous. I don’t labor with them. You get what you get. I think of them as haikus. I like their scale. Paintings feel like novels. They are always getting reworked. I use tools on the yupo that I also use on the canvas, but the scale and either ink or paint create a very different range of shapes and characters.
Ink drawings on Yupo paper and a little corner of the studio.
S-F: One question that came up in your studio and has stayed with me ever since is “what do you want from a painting?” It came up in a general way and I can’t remember who asked it, but I think it’s a haunting question because it really gets to the heart of this whole business of trying to be creative. So, Pat Barrett, what do you want from a painting?
PB: I want a painting to call out to me, to get my attention throughout the making of it and at the point at which I stop working on it. So, I guess that means that there’s a conversation initiated and sustained throughout the process of making and beyond. I recently found a photo of a piece I did when I was about 24 that appears to be describing a significant personal event that I am in the middle of right now. I guess you could say that I value nonlinear and intuitive perceptions. I want a painting to be formally sound on my terms. It’s important that its structure has the integrity to get the most out of it. You have to make yourself vulnerable. I like a sense of bravery. What I want in my work is often what I look for in other’s work. I like to see facility but what I really want to see are inexplicabilities. The awkward messiness that has nothing to do with trying to impress with ego or personality but makes you curious about why these images come up.
Materials and the evidence of process.
S-F: Who are you looking at?
PB: I follow a lot of regional painters. I like painterly work. I like Instagram because I can follow painters all over the world. I have a roving eye that is not inclined towards editing and I don’t have much of an academic approach.
You can see more Pat Barrett:
- on his website: www.patbarrettstudio.com/
- at Gallery 114
- on his instagram: @pathbarrett
1949 (San Jose, CA) - 2023 (McMinnville, OR)
2020, acrylic on Canvas 54"x 46"
2021, acrylic on canvas, 62" x 56"
2023, acrylic on canvas, 54" x 48"
2023, acrylic on canvas, 54" x 48"