Hannah Barnes, "Kali Yuga: Drawings for an Aging Universe"

Hannah Barnes, Kshetriah Road, 2015, watercolor and gesso on paper, 40 x 50 inches.

Hannah Barnes, Avidya, 2015watercolor and gesso on paper, 40 x 50 inches.

Although the show is now closed, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Hannah Barnes’ recent show in Gallery No. 2 at the Harrison Center, which was up in February. It’s one of the most impressive gallery shows I’ve seen in Indy and I think it deserves a little additional thought.

Barnes’ work is evocative, and makes a case in its own way for the continued relevance of abstract painting. In a time when it seems that all of the possible avenues for abstract painting have been exhausted, Barnes’ work feels relevant not because it’s staking out any new formal territory, but because of the way that it digs into human experience and creates challenging visual encounters.

Comprised entirely of what might be categorized as geometric abstractions, Barnes’ tightly constructed watercolors are meditations on order, disorder, and decay—on the way that new systems supplant the ones they replace—as, for instance, the order of bacteria, fungi and worms eventually replaces an order of flesh, bone and sinew in the compost heap or under the earth.

Central to most of the large watercolors is a kind of collision. Barnes uses a grid (often in rather ingenious ways) to create intricate, repeating patterns that recall Italian or Islamic decorative mosaics. While the patterns look complex at first glance, it becomes clear on closer inspection that they are very simply conceived—often consisting of intersecting grids that combine to create complex, shifting patterns. The collision in each is roughly the same: this gridded, dynamic system of shapes is interrupted by some sort of event—a paint spill, the overlay of another grid or system, passing through some boundary or other.

It’s a drama that might pass a simple interruption, or a collage-like moment where a part of one painting is ripped up and attached to another. But this is where the work gets interesting: even though there is a rupture, the new system is still structured by the same grid—the same set of rules—but the rules are applied according to a new algorithm. The resulting structure has a different ethos even if, at bottom, it retains the same structure.

For instance, in Kshetriah Road a tight checkerboard of intersecting triangular and hexagonal shapes morphs into a stack of larger, more ponderous triangles. In Avidya, a diagonal checkerboard at right dissolves into a series of punchy diamonds flying through a hazy space of delicately stained colors.

I’ve seen a lot of geometric abstractions that push hard on the visual paradoxes, surprises, and optical illusions that have been part of the vocabulary of this genre for a long time. What’s compelling about Barnes’ work is that, ironically, what looks like an optical illusion or paradox in fact resolves itself as an orderly shift in focus. The net result it a painting that begins by buzzing with contradictions but ends in clear, distilled vision—a kind of resolution that feels a bit untimely, in the best sense of that term. 

Hannah Barnes, "Kali Yuga: Drawings for an Aging Universe," Gallery No. 2 at Harrison Center for the Arts, 1505 N. Delaware. Gallery Hours: M-F 9am-5pm. February 5 - 29, 2016.