Town Square

Content, Emotions, and Visual Appeal

Original post made by John Barry, Danville, on Oct 29, 2012

Bill Carmel is a local artist and educator who was kind enough to review "Painting, Pictures, Puns," a show to which I alluded in my last post.

Five Danville artists who share studio space in Danville are also sharing exhibit space at the Diablo Valley College Library in Pleasant Hill. Titled “Painting, Pictures, Puns,” their group show runs until December 14.

This exhibit of studio artists John Barry, Kevin Davidson, Gwen Harris, Leslie Ruth, and Katherine Wills is worth seeing. Joining the studio group and spearheading the exhibit effort is photographer Kasia Kessler, a DVC student who works in the library. Not only are their works well done but they offer something more than visual appeal. The exhibit even stirred up a little controversy that stirred up some protest on campus.

What upset some people was the subject matter of a painting by Kevin Davidson. His untitled painting depicts four infamous Third Reich officials wearing iPods. It would seem that a picture of anything looking “Nazi” is upsetting to many people. Apparently these folks didn’t take the time to look beyond their initial feeling of shock, disgust, and distain and see the obviously absurd inclusion of contemporary technology on the subject’s ears, as if they were alive today or had iPods in the past. To the credit of the DVC library exhibits head, Ruth Sison, she did not resort to censorship of the work, which many artists showing artwork in the Tri-Valley area experience. Instead, she requested that a statement by the artist be included. This seemed to mollify the protesters and, it is to be hoped, models the kind of response that gallery directors in this neck of the woods should follow in the future.

The artist explains that the graphic combination of past crimes against humanity with future technology tells a tale of caution. What would have happened if the Nazis had had this technology? And, even more sobering, what are our contemporary sociopaths in positions of power doing with it?

John Barry deserves a round of applause for his mixed media constructions. He uses language, mainly puns and visual metaphors, to make social commentary with a puckish humor. I can tell you from personal experience that translating verbal language or humor into a visual composition is very difficult to do well.

I especially like the “skaint” paintings, which John has described in previous posts in the Express. This use of inline skates to apply paint onto the canvas is a sly way of poking fun at the art process, which can appear to be pretentious. In this way, he forgoes the kind of judgments that artists make in the process and construction of a composition. All is spontaneous and accidental. As John is fond of saying, “Art is what you can get away with!” Although that is certainly true of one facet of the art market, it is the author’s understanding that appreciation OR rejection of aesthetic principles and emotional content accounts for most of the rest.

Gwen Harris paints landscapes and urban themes in oil on canvas. Her palette is strong and vibrant, yet the overall effect of her compositions is emotionally subtle.

Kasia Kessler shows black-and-white photographs printed on metal, paper, and canvas. My favorites are the ones that employ the human form. These studies in subtle contours and contrasts of light and shadow are remarkably dynamic in their emotional content. The warmth and care that goes into the compositional choices is apparent, as is the visual appeal of her works. I only wish these small works could be larger.

Leslie Ruth uses watercolor on paper as her preferred medium. I particularly like the ones that are looser in rendering scenes of Hawaii, still lives with fruit and botanical themes. One called “Carrots” is my favorite.

Katherine Wills works in oils and acrylics, lately in themes of cityscapes in a personal style with roots in a variation of cubism. The activity of colorful geometric elements reminiscent of shapes and forms in the landscape invites the viewer into these wonderfully balanced paintings. I like “Blue Moon” and “Stair Step City” the best.

It seems to this author that the most significant and poignant statement a visual artist can make is when images that appear contradictory or absurd, along with visual effects that seem dissonant and contrary to accepted aesthetic principals, encourage the viewer to consider a time and place that is uncomfortable, illogical, displeasing, and terrifying when viewed without context. Then we are transported to an alternative reality where horror and catharsis, redemption and grace are possible.

In the history of art, this is what has happened every time a new style has appeared. First it is subjected to ridicule and persecution. Then as more artists adopt the new style and more people appreciate it, the style is co-opted by the artistic establishment and becomes accepted and entrenched in the art community. All of these styles eventually become revered, more or less, by a portion of the general population as it speaks to specific demographic qualities in a culture.

John A. Barry is a writer and avocational artist. To share anything art-related or to pitch a story idea, call him at 314-9528 or email