By Mike Weiss
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
WILLIAMSBURG — At the Front Room gallery in Williamsburg is a 5-foot-tall painting, on which a cool muted blue moves like a stream through an abstract landscape of blazing orange-reds. Within this landscape, the natural forms of clouds and trees contrast with the fractured struts of a tree house. It is a confluence of tensions, a signpost in a colorful twilight zone where passages of dark oblivion compete with swirling steps to a heavenly window, a small escape hatch to the freedom of an open sky.
“Treehouse (Island)” is a painting by Brooklyn artist Julia Whitney Barnes, an artist whose work ranges from studio painting to ceramics to public art. Formally trained as an oil painter, she also has earned “street cred” from her projects across the city, such as a mural along a highway in Harlem and, in 2009, her life-sized bat sculptures that hung from willow trees in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
We spoke in her studio at the Screwball Spaces complex in Red Hook.
Q: You grew up on the gritty, mean streets of Vermont?
A: I was born in Vermont, but I grew up all over New England. I lived on both the east and west sides of Massachusetts and Connecticut and in 1997 I came to New York to go to Parsons School of Design. I decided when I was 16 I was going to move to New York City and be an artist, and about two days after turning 18 I moved here. I’ve been here ever since.
Q: Did you always want to be an artist?
A: No. When I was a little kid I thought about becoming a veterinarian and I also played music, the saxophone and trumpet. But when I was 14 I started thinking about what it was like to make art and how art was a direct translation of my thoughts and more creative for me.
So for high school I went to the Norwich Free Academy in Connecticut, which has a fine arts program. Starting my sophomore year I got to take all different types of art classes, and the teachers were inspiring and taught me so much. That foundation was really invaluable.
Q: You work a lot in ceramics — do you consider yourself primarily a painter or a ceramicist?
A: The ceramics people always think you’re a painter and the painting people are like, “oh, but she makes work in ceramics.” I think 10 years ago there was still very much a separation between them, but now I see more and more shows where people are doing interdisciplinary work with mixed media. So ceramics has definitely come away from the “craft” title. I just call myself a visual artist, but I think I approach ceramics as a painter.
Q: How is that?
A: Well, okay. I started working in ceramics when I was at Parsons and while I had formal training in painting I didn’t have any in ceramics. So after Parsons I signed up to take a class at this place called The Mud Pit in Brooklyn and thought okay, now I’m going to learn how to work with clay. But the clay people were like, “no, no, no, you can’t do this,” or “you can’t use glazes like that it doesn’t work,” and I kept saying, “yes it does, I’ve already tried it.”
Q: Starting around 2004 you began an intensive five-year period painting portraits of bats where their faces and folded wings change into the colorful shapes of flowers. Was the tension created by combining these two very different forms your main goal?
A: I think orchids have the reputation of being “the beautiful” or the “precious” and bats of being “dangerous” and “grotesque” and I definitely wanted a level of tension from those two meeting. But I didn’t just want to combine pieces of them, I wanted it to feel like they were mating, as if they were actually creating something new.
I’d always been interested in bats but once I started looking into them for these portraits, I started seeing there were so many species. There’re nearly a thousand, and it’s mind-blowing the ways they can adapt to live all over the world.
One of the things they do, over thousands of years, is morph into looking like the plants around them. Then I read how orchids, over the same huge amounts of time, can start emulating the forms of the animals that pollinate them. I saw a photograph of an orchid whose center looked just like the nose of this bat I was looking at.
Q: In your 2011 painting “Treehouse (Island),” the tension starts to feel as if it’s coming from more subtle sources. Instead of arising from a combination of unusually paired forms, there’s now the mixing of different perspectives which creates a charged, almost magical sense of space.
A: Yeah. I thought a lot about the perspective and spatial aspects, where the viewer should be and how the size of the painting affects the way your body relates to it. I worked on this piece for over two years, and I think the reason it took so long was because I wanted to create an atmosphere. There are so many layers on that painting, the clouds, the water, the treehouse forms, [they] are all created by layers of paint. Seeing through these transparent layers you’re watching something reveal itself, yet camouflaged at the same time. It’s a very personal painting.
With my ceramic pieces you can walk around them and they seem to change because of the relief, and that definitely influenced my paintings. I wanted to feel like you could explore a space pictorially and use that same level of illusionism.
Q: Last spring, you designed and directed a mural project at 155th Street in Harlem called “Roots/Routes.” Completed with the help of 250 volunteers, the mural runs along 2,000 feet of concrete highway barriers, painted in cheerful day-glo colors of yellow and green, overlaid with a design that appears to be black roots snaking up out of the ground.
A: You know, when you make public art there are certain things you can and can’t do. This piece was commissioned by the Department of Transportation as part of their Urban Art Program. But I think if I get it right, the piece still has an underbelly of tension that I try to have in my work.
That mural is right by this huge housing project and one day a woman came by, looked at it and said, “Yo, that shit is mad creepy — but I like it!” And I thought, “Yes!”
Q: What do you like about living in Brooklyn?
A: I have a car and I love driving around, exploring. Sometimes I’ll drive to a point where I don’t even know where I am and get out and just start walking. I’ve always been interested in the art of cemeteries, I love Green-Wood Cemetery and the old Victorian houses in Kensington, churches and synagogues, and I photograph old theaters all the time. When I first moved here I lived in the East Village and the neighborhood has good energy, but I didn’t feel like I had a home until I moved to Brooklyn and then I finally felt like this is home.
“Treehouse (Island),” Julia Whitney Barnes’s 2011 oil painting, will be on exhibit at the Front Room gallery in Williamsburg until Feb. 26.