Sue de Beer
Harry Dodge & Stanya Kahn
Luis Gispert & Jeffrey Reed
Erik van Lieshout
Stephen G. Rhodes
Ryan Trecartin & Lizzie Fitch
If John Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath (1853) puts the viewer right in front of an abyss into which countless humans—undoubtedly condemned to eternal fire—are falling, he seems to suggest that both the artist’s and viewer’s subject-position is that of passive recipient of “His” action, “His” decision. From both sides, great waves of rubble and dust caused by the world’s surface as it breaks apart are creating a swirl, both in the painting and for the eye of the viewer, whose center is the black of the abyss. Barnaby Furnas’s series of “flood” paintings put the viewer in exactly the same position, dead center before the parting of the Red Sea, which roils back in a swirl towards the center of the painting, both directing the viewer’s gaze and producing within the painting a gaze that, ultimately, fixes the viewer in a specific place. Yet there are no humans swallowed up by the violence of the water, neither the Israelites crossing over to freedom, nor the Egyptians who die trying to stop them. This absence unhinges the fixed position that one has at first been assigned; it unsettles the knowing and passive reception which might have been mitigated by reflections of pathos or ironic comments about scale. While looking in vain for signs of painterly authorship—brushstrokes, stabs with the back of the brush, paint drippings of any sort—expressive enough to safely assign the painting simply to a knowing play with art history’s receptacle of strategies, looking for them so as to be safe within the frame of one’s own quick and witty judgement, one realizes the preposterous position of “being Moses.” One stands literally parting unchartered waters, forced to contemplate and act while receiving, even forcing, an act which does not have sufficient grounding in what has come before, and no reference that might allow for the calculation of success.
It might be important to realize that Furnas began creating these large-scale “floods” during and after a period in which he also painted a series of pictures relating to the person and the story of John Brown. John Brown, it has been said, is the protagonist of the only instance of radical egalitarian politics in the history of the United States. He has a claim to this status because, to him, the abolition of slavery, the recognition of the equality of African-American slaves, was not a matter of strategy, or of what today would pass for “politics.” Rather, it consisted in the radical assertion of its present completion, of the facticity of equality. He, too, acted, without having sufficient grounds, in what came before, without reference to the status quo and what it would allow to happen or not happen. By doing this, he exempted himself and those he confronted from the social life—the symbolic conditions surrounding them—and thus radically changed them.
With this figure, who is arguably at the center of Furnas’s painterly imagination, the link to the earlier paintings of Civil War battle scenes and “snap-shots,” in an almost literal sense, is completed. Furnas himself has said: “I’ve been working with John Brown for a while. He’s sort of my, he’s my, he’s like my Jesus. He’s very interesting now just cause he’s like a terrorist too. He’s doing what he thought was right because he was told by God. And they saw him as a man of action. He apparently was like incredibly impressive and a great orator. Then they hung him.” Like Moses, John Brown “did not play by the rules.” He radically changed them. Also like Moses, John Brown remained in the world of becoming, never switching or being allowed to switch to the world in which such changes become institutionalized. One is tempted to think also of Freud’s theory that the original Moses was killed so as to allow the society of Israel to shape itself free of the pressure of his acts of impossibility and of the reminder of the necessity for the impossibility of the act. With his paintings, Furnas places both himself and us as viewers in an indeterminate space between these two moments, both before the act and after it. Before, because we are forced to contemplate the moment of the act as it emerges, appears, tiptoes on the invisible line of impossibility. And after, because we are left with a painting, after all, and left with it today. Furnas’s work engages in a dialogue with the imperialist gesture of artists like Barnett Newman, who created his large “red paintings” in a conscious effort to produce work that was free of historical baggage and up to the standards of the American Moment. We are left with a painting whose smooth nature, whose almost collective production process, and whose embeddedness in the dubious pathways of contemporary art produce a contradictory comment on its own impossibility. One is tempted to say, or rather, to ask if this is in spite of or because of the desire of its painter to start over again after the “Endgame,” to part the Red Sea and produce an act.
Lives and works in New York
|2007||Focus: Barnaby Furnas, The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, USA|
|2006||Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York|
|2005||Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, England Lever House, New York|
|2004||Modern Art Inc., London|
|2007||The Old, Weird America, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, USA|
|2006||USA Today, The Royal Academy of Arts, in collaboration with the Saatchi Gallery, London|
|2005||PILLish: Harsh Realities and Gorgeous Destinations, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, USA|
|2004||Seeing Other People, Marianne Boesky
Gallery, New York |
The Whitney Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Jeffrey Kastner, “Art in Review,” in: The New York Times (October 13, 2006).
Cecilia Alemani, “Barnaby Furnas,” in: Artforum, no.1 (September 2006).
Calvin Tomkins, “The Creative Life: The Pour,” in: The New Yorker (March 13, 2006).
Jordan Kantor, “Review,” in: Artforum, no. 3 (September 2002).
Ken Johnson, “Art in Review: Barnaby Furnas,” in: The New York Times (May 3, 2002).