Thursday, October 3, 1991

Making Things: Artist Raymond Barnhart 10/5/91

 Assemblages by Sebastopol Artist Raymond Barnhart

THE SUM OF ITS PARTS— Barnhart outside his Sebastopol work space with one of his "relief constructions,"
Consummation. "I want to please the work. I want it to please itself."

We asked the captain what course of action to take toward a beast so large, terrifying, and unpredictable. He hesitated to answer, and then said judiciously: "I think I shall praise it."   —Robert Hass, Praise


I recalled the twist on reality and an unexpected visit from poet Bob Hass' poem, Praise while viewing Sebastopol artist Raymond Barnhardt's latest exhibit, "Recent Constructions" at the California Museum of Art in Santa Rosa, California.

Because everyone's response to my queries about Raymond Barnhart and his work was the inevitable raised eyebrow, followed by an incredulous: "You mean you don't KNOW about Raymond Barnhart's illustrious career?" I gulped, and found that the best recourse was to praise it. Taking the beast by the horns—by asking Barnhart niggling details about his second career as an assemblage artist (painting was his first career) seemed sacreligiously inane and so unintelligent. Excuse me, your slip is showing...

And so, at a recent artist's lecture at the California Museum of Art (CMA), when the venerable artist himself was introduced by museum director Duane Jones as "Someone who needs no introduction," I thought, aww feck, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was right: "You can only ask questions and die." Luckily, the lecture was a quorum of questions ranging from "How do you name your art?" to "What kind of power tools do you use?" The questions were all answered by Barnhart, age 88, with such thoughtfulness, verve and wit, I was in love with love itself.

Artists know firsthand that one of the challenges in art and poetry is to create something that is profound, but with a sense of humor. One who can accomplish both—without lessening the impact of the statement—is a Master. Barnhart's elegant, formal masterful assemblages are intentionally playful, they delight the eye, they make you want to laugh. 

Conceptual artists make us look at ordinary things in a new way, they redefine our limited perameters of "definition." It comes down to rearranging concrete nouns into metaphor—Plato's nemesis. The metaphor of Picasso's bicycle seat and handlebars as a bull's skull. Man Ray's steam iron with nails, and Christo's running fence—all share that spirited kinship to challenge the senses and reality. How we see the world.

In his youth, Raymond Barnhart worked as a riverboat deck-hand, carpenter, fruitpacker, and window designer before becoming an artist. A painter during the first half of his life, Barnhart received his MFA from Ohio State University, and he was an instructor at the University of Kentucky for 32 years before leaving and moving to California in 1958. 

While teaching a design and wood sculpture class in Mill Valley, and from his contacts with the Bauhaus novement, Barnhart found his true medium: assemblage. His assemblage work is classical in the sense of composition, aesthetics, and design. From the Conceptualists, he incorporated the use of found objects. And he made a just marriage of it.

But whereas Conceptualists diverged, exploring man's alienation in society, Barnhart's work is full of hope and compassion: it reflects the linear sentiments of art, beauty, balance, harmony; it transmorgifies limitation as set in stone by various art movements: it remains unswerving in its devotion to the aesthetics of art.

Wind-blasted, sun-bleached, and burnt materials juxtaposed against man-made rusted and tarnished discards become the poetry of deserted places. Fellow Sonoma County artist John Kessel said, "Raymond Barnhart assembles diverse, objects to create visual poems that evoke either man's place in nature—or man in contemplation before nature. Some pieces tell a story, and all are poems which convey an impact. This is an art of redemption and reconciliation."

Raymond Barnhart's contemplative "Homage to Albers," a tribute to former teacher and Bauhaus master Josef Albers, is essentially a 3-D painting made of found materials. So many relief constructions, or constructed reliefs that double as sculptures, are also subtle and painterly—the wrong color value or texture would destroy the harmony. 

The piece entitled "Yesterdays," for instance, is made of mullein leaves and weathered boards accented with traces of vermillion and rust. "Straight Guy'" has a cerulean blue backdrop for the book, embellished with old Mexican coins—Quetzocoatl's centavos and cobwebs (intentional or otherwise). 

Many of the relief-constructions are formal in composition, and all have stories behind them: "Playtime," an elegant moment from another era, is captured with that one lost glove and fragments of a mirror set against a pale peach and tender green backdrop, while "Op-Art?," evolved from a run-in with a wood-munching gopher absconding with dried fruit in a prune tray—the ultimate recycler's revenge.

"Sort of an Altar" is in keeping with pre-Christian animistic Native, and Latin American traditions. Barnhart spent considerable time in the Southwest and Mexico studying new materials, including vinyl resins under José Guiterréz. 

Other pieces evoke a Japanese aesthetic. Simplicity and clean lines—an oxymoron when one considers the human detritus from which these constructions arise, phoenix-like, from our discards. 

In the Japanese sense of the tradition, Barnhart is Sonoma County's "living national treasure," an honorary title the Japanese bestow upon their finest artists. As it tums out, in 1962 and I963, Barnhart took a sabbatical in Kyoto, to observe traditional culture. His assemblage, "Memorial" is in the contemplative spirit of a Japanese Zen garden and is "quintessentually Raymond," as one art patron committed at the exhibit.

When someone asked. "How does the spirit enter the work?" both Barnhart's wife, Genevieve, a jeweler-sculptor, and CMA Director Duane Jones interjected in unison: "Because it's there!" A variation of the famous Adele Davis quote banged around in my head: "Your art is what you meet." 

Perhaps a more hard-hitting audience question was "Why is this art?" Barnhart sanguinely commented: "You're no beffer than what you are—you do the best you can. I make what I want—the best I can. Some people call it fine art. I don't have the ego to call it that, I just make things." At a previous an show, when an observer snarled, "What's this supposed to be?" Barnhart replied, "It already is what it is!"

Barnhart attributes his interest in recycling found objects both to his youthful visits to the city dump and to his job at a large department store where, like Andy Warhol, he got his start in the arts by arranging window designs... for women's corsets and brazierres. "I'd see something interesting." An under-statement. Apparently his bosses who kept abreast of his provocative displays, agreed: two year later he was appointed head of the entire display department.

According to Barnhart, bringing a relief-construction into the world for public display is usually a process of elimination rather than of adding to the composition. And he arranges things by degrees—the way a mechanic fine-tunes the points on a car: if the dwell-gap isn't just right, the end result is a car that won't run and you're on foot far from home some dark and rainy night. CMA Curator Duane Jones commented, "When one of Barnhart's assemblages undergoes subtle rearrangement, it might take months before it is completed."

"The piece and I become a team," Barnhart explained, "We grow together. I start off with a plan, but wonderful things happen along the way. I want to please the work. I want it to please itself, and I want people to respond to it. I'm not the great artist who makes things difficult to understand—children like my work." High praise, indeed.

When an art patron asked if he plains an assemblage in advance. Barnhart replied, "No, that would be like meeting three people you've never met before and already you've figured out how to manage them."

Barnhart commented that one of the first pieces to sell at the CMA exhibit, "Crisis" featuring Japanese dolls, is "an absurd sort of piece, it doesn't make any kind of sense. It's a kind of insanity that I had to follow." He compared his own artwork to how some people react to stress. "It's absurd; a pun." As is his purple mouse and throne, "Her Highness."

One piece with a conundrum of a title, "Emanon," is merely "no name" spelled backwards. Barnhart said, "I ask the pieces, what is it you're really standing for? I limit my definitions to a deliberate vagueness, because if I'm specific, I'm narrowing it down. You are not limited by your own presuppositions. I name my pieces purely for identification purposes. If you don't like them, why then, make up your own name."

Barnhart considers himself to be a third-rate carpenter with a proclivity for the hand saw. He said, "I'd rather do it by hand; it's in keeping with the material I use. I'm pretty conscietious about using authentic wood." He elaborates that nothing can mimic the natural aging process of the elememts—which gives his works their characteristic patina. 

Though owing to the fragile nature of his material, Barnhart doesn't imagine his art will outlast an art consumer's grandchildren. Barnhart says, "I use lots of nails. And glue is a serious proposition. It's embarrassing to have you piece come apart."

Barnhart reflects, the process of finding a home for the artwork is is often painful. "I hate to see some of them go, or to put prices on them." He dislikes working through a regular dealer and insead prefers that potential buyers come directy to the source, so he holds an annual open house and studio (this year's Open Studio is Sept. 28 through Oct. 6). 

Barnhart's prices are downright bargains—far below that of lesser artists' work-because he wants to make his art affordable to artists. One artist friend paid installments at $10 month for three years. "It should be on the wall for someone to appreciate." At any given time, he has over 150 pieces floating around his studio and home. At a dozen pieces a year, he's not a prolific artist, but then, he says, he doesn't do it for the money.

Bamhart migrated to Sebastopol in 1969 with "all the cumbersome impedimenta of an assemblagíste." He described his hand-built home, work areas and studio located in the hills west of Sebastopol, "like having an enormous library.' He peered over his glasses and said to me: "You're a poet; it's like your having a dictionary or a thesaurus." 

His "library" of reference material from which he draws upon to make the assemblages that are slowly born into this material world——is extensive. Sometimes it takes years to get each piece jiust right. Thirty years' worth of material slowly continues to evolve, or devolve, as the case may be, patiently awaiting the resurrection into art. 

Barnhart says he sorts things according to shape and substance: rebar, stones, bones, feathers, 2x4s, weathered barn-siding, etc. He says constructing assemblage is not like painting—from a few tubes, we can mix millions of colors. "I start to work on a piece. it tells me it wants something—then I have to go out and find it—without knowing exactly what it is." And so the hunt and peck system begins.

Barnhart's assemblages continue to appeal to the senses and delight the eye, because he is a master of composition and serene harmony. I am struck by how much "sense" his assemblages make—found objects, each with a particular history. The equation of this-is-to-this as that-is-to-that. Some found objects incorporated into the art have been knocking around Barnhart's studio since 1957. Other bits and pieces, are flotsam that people have give him. Finding a home for wayward objects requires persistence, patience—and a reverence for what they were in past lives. In Raymond's art, the whole is always greater than its parts.

"Recent Constructions" by Raymond Barnhart is on exhibit at the California Museum of Art at the Luther Bubank Center through Nov. 3. Also on view are assemblages by Santa Rosa artist Charles Churchill. Museum hours are 11 AM to 4 PM, Wednesday through Sunday. For more informaition call 527-0297.

I am indeed honored to have known such a man as Raymond Barnhart. I am a better person for it. He touched the lives of many artists and writers and will be sorely missed. —MH


(Raymond Barnhart was fatally injured in a car accident, August, 1996). The Memorial was held at the California Museum of Art, Santa Rosa, California.

"The making of art has been the major force that has formed my life, from the copying of a brilliant autumn leaf in the first grade, on to my recent garden pieces. As a practical youth I envisaged a future as a commercial illustrator, but my eventual exposure to college studies in the history of art along with visits to art museums gave me an awareness of the true art world "out there."

Concurrently with my college and art school classes, I met and worked with some great master-teachers. These latter contacts fortunately set my ambition to become an art teacher myself. This was a most rewarding direction to take because I was able to pass on the making of art to many other young people, to continue my own art production, and—modestly enough—to earn a living.

Since my retirement as Professor at the University of Kentucky in 1968—leaving studio teaching while I still loved it—I have had the privilege of working solely on my own pursuits. Choosing the North Bay Area was fortunate—I have had the privilege of associating with numerous creative artists. So I feel that I have spent my life with art most happily. "

—Raymond Barnhart

from the brochure "Celebration: Raymond Barnhart 1903 - 1996, " Memorial Exhibition, CMA, at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.


1937 Marshall University, Huntington, WV.
1950-1968 University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY (eight exhibitions).
1950 Indiana Museum, Evansville, IN
1952-1966 Art Center, Louisville, KY, (four exhibitions).
1955 Caravan Gallery, New York NY.
1959 McNay Art Institute, San Antonio, TX .
1960 University of Mississipi, Jackson, MI.
1964 University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM.
1964 Staten Island Museum, New York, NY.
1964 Stanford University, Stanford, CA.
1964 University of Colorado, Boulder, CO.
1967 University of Arizona, Tempe, AZ
1969 Cleveland Art Institute, Cleveland, OH.
1969 University of Colorado, Boulder, CO.
1970 Galeria del Sol, Santa Barbara, CA.
1971 Dominican College, San Rafael, CA.
1971 Rio Honda College,Whittier, CA.
1974 Richmond Art Center, Richmond, CA.
1976 San Jose Art League, San Jose, CA.
1977 Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa, CA.
1977 The Annex Gallery, Santa Rosa, CA.
1978 Berkeley Art Center, Berkeley, CA.
1978 "A" Gallery (Anna Gardner), Santa Rosa, CA.
1980 Quicksilver Mine Co. Gallery, Stinson Beach, CA.
1982 "Home-Studio" exhibition, Sebastopol, CA.
1984 "Home-Studio" exhibition, Sebastopol, CA.
1885 California Museum of Art, Luther Burbank Art Center, Santa Rosa, CA.
1985 Marshall University Art Museum, Huntington, WV.
1987 J..Noblett Gallery, Boyes Hot Springs, CA.
1988 City Art Center, Walnut Creek, CA.
1990 J.Noblett Gallery, Boyes Hot Springs, CA.
1991 "Home-Studio" exhibition, Sebastopol, CA
1991 California Museum of Art, Luther Burbank Art Center, Santa Rosa, CA.
1993 "Home-Studio" exhibition, Sebastopol, CA.
1995 California Museum of Art, Luther Burbank Art Center, Santa Rosa, CA.
1995 University Art Museum, Lexington, KY.
1995 California Museum of Art, (Retrospective exhibition), Luther Burbank Art Center, Santa Rosa, CA.
1996 California Museum of Art,"Raymond Barnhart: A celebration 1903-1996"
Luther Burbank Art Center, Santa Rosa, CA.


Anonymous said...

Hello Maureen,

Thank you for the article on Raymond Barnhart. He is not only one of my primary heros but also my grandfather. I appreciate the respect, insight and compassion for him ad his work that you have illustrated herein.

For some time it has been my intention to write a biography about 'Teacher' and have recently begun looking at the process more seriously. As a part of this adventure I will also include a website dedicated to him.

It comes to mind that I will want to include other people's insights and impressions of 'Teacher'. I wanted to preliminarily contact you in the case that your article here may be useful, in part or whole, and ask for your permission to use it? (With all due credit of course).

Thank you for your time.

Geoff Geist

Maureen Hurley said...

Dear Geoff,

I am pleased and delighted that you found my article and that you also might want to use it either in part, or in its entirety. I first met Raymond through his assemblage. My friend, Zara Altair was buying one of his pieces on installment—$20 a month. I had no money, and never bought a piece, but by my front door in Forestville was an assemblage piece I made in honor of Raymond. I dearly loved Raymond—his kindness and gentleness was consummate. He also honored my craft as a poet—a crossover recognition of metaphoric systems between art forms that rarely happens. We met as artists—not as subject/object. Artist/reporter. He gave me newfound respect for my new craft of prose reportage (which doesn't come easy—my being dyslexic.) These old articles were languishing away—written before internet! And I posted it here in the hopes that others might read it too. His grandson, no less!