South Puget Sound Community College’s 2023 Southwest Washington Juried Exhibition serves as a homecoming of sorts for painter Nathan Barnes, the show’s juror. Barnes, now an art professor at Grays Harbor College, managed the SPSCC gallery from 2013 to 2017.
“We are a community college gallery, and he is a deep part of our community,” said Sean Barnes, the gallery manager — and no relation. “Nathan is an accomplished artist and a wonderful curator, but also, how many opportunities do you have to invite someone back to curate an exhibition in the space where they used to work?”
“I’m honored,” Nathan Barnes said. “When they asked me, the first thing I did was laugh, and I said, ‘You guys really want me to do this?’ It surprised me. … It’s not self-deprecation; I just think it’s funny. ‘Oh, you want my opinion?’ But it’s also like, ‘Him? Her? Them? Really?’
“Art is deeply important,” he said. “It’s the thing I breathe. But it’s also deeply ridiculous. We’re all so serious while we’re wearing our clown hats. So you have to have pleasure; you have to have fun.” In his own work, he takes great pleasure in direct observation — seeing the shapes and colors that emerge when he lets go of what he knows. “It’s not so cool to work that way,” he said, “but ultimately, you are what you are.”
Pleasure was one of the principles that helped him winnow 201 submissions by 74 artists down to 49 works by 36 artists, with the number of works limited by the size of the gallery. He chose pieces that inspired him, ones that challenged him — and ones that fit into a theme that emerged as he reviewed the pieces. “A lot of people submitting two-dimensional work that had at least one figure that was translucent, half materialized or dematerialized,” he said. “I thought that was really worth noting and building around.”
When he was younger, Barnes found curating a challenge precisely because it was so inspiring. “I didn’t have a sense of myself,” he said. “My interest in so many different kinds of art would seep too much into my studio and pull me in too many different directions.”
These days, he’s clear: Direct perception is the focus of his paintings, recently shown at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts. In the garage studio of his Olympia home, Barnes has arranged objects including a picture frame, a bicycle wheel, boxes and, humorously, a “wet paint” sign. While he works, he stands on a piece of masking tape so his view is consistent.
“I don’t think the subject matter is of any significance here,” he said. “It’s just a composition. … I’ve got these triangles that just come off the page. I’m not trying to produce them; they just show up.” He’s thinking about adding more objects as he goes, creating layers that will reveal themselves to viewers who spend time with the finished work — much the way his subjects reveal themselves when he spends time observing them.
“As I’ve grown and aged as an artist, I realize more and more I love to sit in front of things,” he said. “I spend 60 percent of my time looking at the subject and 40 percent looking at the surface that I’m working on. The majority is the observation.”
It’s a principle he imparts to his students at Grays Harbor. When asked to draw a box that’s put in front of them, new students nearly always wind up drawing their idea of what a box looks like rather than the reality of the shapes and planes they observe.
“I tell them, ‘You need to shut off the idea in your mind of what you think the thing looks like and draw what you see,’ ” he said. “Engaging with that phenomenon — observing the thing, forgetting what you think it is and seeing it for what’s in front of you — gives me endless satisfaction and avenues for discovery and research.”
When doing a landscape, Barnes makes detailed sketches and studies and takes notes about light, color and temperature relationships. He paints from photos only when necessary, noting that a painting of a photo is a painting of ink on paper, rather than a painting of the three-dimensional world. When photos are necessary, he converts them to black and white, so the final work won’t be influenced by the way a photograph flattens colors and changes the relationships among them.
Barnes’ aim is for everything in his work to come from direct perception. He’s building a library of sketches that he can use for reference in future works, allowing him to add to a scene without relying on ideas of how things look. “I have this daydream where the only work I do is from my personal library,” he said.
Southwest Washington Juried Exhibition
July 10-Aug. 17
Opening reception 6-8:30 p.m. July 13
The Leonor R. Fuller Gallery, South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Rd. SW, Olympia