Artist’s Photo Collages Span the Ages

Barnard Shows At R St. Gallery

Posted November 18, 2008 at 3:27pm

Artist Michael Barnard is one of those people who likes to dabble in just about everything.

Ask Barnard what he does for a living, and he’ll tell you that he’s a musician, a filmmaker, a poet, a writer, an editor, a designer, a photographer, a painter, a surfer and a world traveler.

But at heart, Barnard is simply an artist, and his art — now on display in an exhibit titled “Wave/Particle Dance of Life” at the R Street Gallery in Dupont Circle — mirrors his eclectic life.

Barnard’s artistic specialty are the collages he calls “Photofields,”

large photo montages that piece together a range of carefully cropped snapshots. Many of the photos come from everyday life — street signs, flowers or clouds, for example. Others stem from Barnard’s travels, including multiple shots (in multiple pieces) of gondolas in Venice, Italy.

“It can’t be literal, like storytelling,” Barnard said of his work. “It’s affecting emotions and memories and all sorts of stuff.”

Barnard never intended to create Photofields; he just started putting together photos of his different experiences, he said.

As a filmmaker in the 1960s and 1970s, he created “FieldFilms,” which took clips of casual, everyday life and blended them with carefully orchestrated scenes. The films are bright and choppy, and the images range from the serene and joyful to the somewhat frightening.

But by the end of the ’70s, Barnard stopped making the films to focus on other media. In his spare time, he would go surfing near his home in Santa Monica, Calif., and often took a small waterproof camera along to snap shots of the ocean, which he described as “inherently beautiful.”

The images were so moving that Barnard started grouping them together, creating a montage. “Something just started happening,” he recalled.

Soon, Barnard began taking a camera with him wherever he went, taking photographs of anything he saw that was interesting. He would then print out the images and take them to his studio, where he would begin to pair photos of seemingly unrelated things together.

Some Photofields come together quickly, with Barnard able to take one shot and immediately think of others to pair it with. Others take years to create, including “The Curious Rainbow Speaks,” the highlight piece of the exhibition that features close-up shots of 20 flowers.

Barnard hopes his art provides a “sacred space that allows people to have a moment,” he said. But that doesn’t mean there’s a direct meaning in all the pieces.

“Mostly, I just shoot things that I like,” he said. “It’s play.”

Not everybody gets the art right away, Barnard admits. Take the 12 abstract pieces Barnard created for the local library in Fontana, Calif., a blue-collar suburb of Los Angeles known primarily for its trucking industry.

The vertical works feature montages of soothing photos, like that of the ocean, mixed with harsh-looking signs, shots taken during Barnard’s European travels and blurry displays of light.

“I spent a lot of time shooting imagery,” Barnard recalled. “They were slightly freaked out when they actually saw them.”

Smaller re-creations of the Fontana library artwork are on display at the R Street Gallery, alongside another exhibition highlight, “Lucid Silence Equals Infinite Brilliance,” a horizontal piece featuring three calm, gray-tinted photos of mountains, the ocean water and a forest.

But Barnard said he has no favorite piece, saying picking one is “impossible. It’s like — do you have a favorite child?”

Barnard is based in Los Angeles, and his work comes to Washington, D.C., via his longtime friend Steve Lapin, who owns the R Street Gallery.

The pair met in the 1980s while dropping their children off at school in Santa Monica. They soon discovered they had plenty in common — Barnard’s current film studio is located in the same building where Lapin had a ceramics studio in the 1960s, for example — and they quickly became close.

When Lapin visited California a few months back, Barnard showed him some of the Photofields pieces. Immediately, Lapin wanted to take them back to Washington.

“I said, ‘God, I’ve got to show this. It’s so beautiful,’” Lapin recalled. “They’re just very alive and vibrant.”

“Wave/Particle Dance of Life” runs through Dec. 6 at the R Street Gallery in Dupont Circle. For more information, call 202-588-1701.