Insects & interstices 

Backward Fables: Nancy Morgan-Barnes
Ruschman Art Gallery Through Dec. 24

Nancy Morgan Barnes’ domestic narrative paintings are deceptive. It’s all in the perspective: Morgan Barnes positions herself as voyeur, which puts the viewer in that role, too; we’re privy to a boxing match, a square dance, a man in his workshop… all from a certain measured distance. What appear as simple narratives are far more; as if the layers of paint, the thick texture, speak to deeper layers of meaning — intended or not.

Morgan Barnes, who lived for many years in Bloomington, Indiana, where she and her husband raised two daughters, moved to Searsport, Maine, in 2000 after her husband’s retirement from Indiana University. Her current exhibition, now on view at Ruschman, suggests a quiet but decided departure point in her painting as well. Her work has always contained a subtle edge, but now there’s an almost dreamy quality, as if her move away has given her a different kind of inner vision.

In “Harvest,” a faded white wall is cracked and worn with age, a bare bulb casting neutral light onto a dresser with flaking paint. A tin can vase of wildflowers sits off-center, offering an enthusiastic burst of color, suggestive of the paradox between decay and growth. One easily senses the artist’s delight in recreating such a lovely moment of color and contrast: she almost abstracts the tendrils poking their way from the can, one spiraling into a loop like an erasure mark. In the foreground, a single plate holds two cherries… and there are bees. Here, there and everywhere; the few in this painting, the many that find their way into the other paintings as well, along with butterflies and the occasional spider. The still life, though, is a mere entry point to somewhere else; a man stands over a sink in the next room, while another stands nearby: a ghost? A friend, brother? A hand’s shadow casts itself over the white wall, adding further intrigue.

Such hidden surprises carry the work beyond the level of solid craftsmanship. Morgan Barnes is a fine painter, certainly; she may delight in an arrangement of gourds and squash—a winter fruit still life—but always there is something more… those bugs, for instance, that ensnare us in a deeper exploration. From straightforward narratives such as a boxing match in Searsport to the layered, outside-of-time quality of paintings such as “From Pompeii to Bremen Town to Indianapolis,” with images of smokestacks, classical sculpture, a squash and the inevitable gaggle of insects, she evokes her own life of places, from Indiana to Italy to Maine, and perhaps our own.

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