“Letting the River Flow: Barry Mack’s Natural Forces”
With tenacity and invention, artist Barry Mack has built a career on the quest to capture and concretize transcendent states. The moment of glorious, blinding epiphany—whether mystical or psychological—intrigues Mack and has long fueled his creative explorations. Working in photography, digital media, and, most prominently, acrylic paint, he has deployed symbolist imagery and motifs culled from myth, geometry, and the collective unconscious, all in the search to visually approximate the inapproximable. Among his more recent series, Ancient Light presented fantastical vistas that riffed on the relationships between past and future, terrestrial and extraterrestrial, landscape and mindscape. Summer Light followed, formalizing a visual vocabulary that leapt into abstraction via mysterious motifs whose simultaneous simplicity and inscrutability evoked hieroglyphs or runes. The artist stripped this vocabulary down to painting’s great constant, light, in the series that followed, Doorways, remarkable in its reductivism and single-minded mission to portray searing moments of transcendence as columns of light. In the line of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Turner, Mack used the drama of light to reach out and touch unknowable realms of Platonic ether. After the austerity of this series, there was nowhere to go save back to Aristotelian terra firma—but with sublime knowledge in tow. In Interiors, his highly successful late-summer show at Hood River’s Westwind Gallery, he juxtaposed geometric perfection against the organicism of highly textural surfaces.
In his current series, Natural Forces, rather than dictate the pictorial languages those surfaces speak, the painter allows them to adopt whichever tongue their own natures choose. The series is noteworthy for many reasons—the dramatic, geological movement of the paint, the varied and often vibrant color palette—but perhaps most of all for its delicious paradox: Mack is still traveling towards the same horizon he has always sought but is traversing a route that is completely new to him. At the divergence of control and freedom, he is trekking down the latter, a road which, for him, is less traveled—and it is making all the difference.
In certain pieces we see the artist in transition from Doorways. Raising Red features a white-hot light shaft asserting itself toward the top of the painting, emerging from an arid, desert-like semi-circle of paint slathered on with palette knife. Looking Up hails from the same caramel-hued family as the Doorways but emits a more diffused luminescence, tempered by the ooze and flow of paint on canvas.
The painter taps this vein further in works that exploit the repellance and coalescence of diverse media, a technique allying him with contemporary painters such as David Geiser and Matt Lamb. With its dramatic color seepages, Into the Unknown can be interpreted microscopically, as a cell at the moment of division; or astronomically, as nebulae separating or colliding; or in any number of more personal takes. With apologies to Gershwin, the serene High Tide could well be titled Rhapsody in Green, for it is a veritable hymn to verdancy, of green seas dotted blue with tidal pools. Elements shares these aquatic allusions, with its stunning Bahamanian blues cupped by earth tones, like a lagoon on some crescent-beached desert island. The liquidic Sudden Eruption achieves a gorgeous pearlescence, glistening and wet to the eye although dry to the touch. In its pictorial prestidigitation, Dark Opening melds brushwork and organic processes in a way that draws comparison to Native American painter James Lavadour.
Two of the most striking works in the current series are Flow and Clash. They are not transitional, but integrative, bringing together many of the artist’s signature elements with invigorating new techniques. Both paintings have underpinnings of the motifs—playful dots, geometric and spermatazoal forms—we are accustomed to seeing in Mack’s métier; both works exult in the unrestrained play between materials; but there is a third element at work here as well: a jaunty gesturalism, tantamount to splatter painting, in the lineage of Jackson Pollock and Sam Francis. Flow could not be more exuberant if it tried, its blues ranging from inky blue-black to ultramarine to cerulean, its luscious lime greens and decadent but well-placed dollop of hot pink enlivening an intuitive composition. Clash feels very much like a summa of where the artist has been and where he might be going. Atop an understructure of concentric rectangles and Summer Light-like circuits, rivers of paint ebb and eddy, properly weighted black towards the bottom, lighter as the diagonally bisected composition ascends. Over this backdrop’s Earth-mother ooze, a spectacular masculine gesture spirals and splatters, milky white, and yet it is a quieter progression at the painting’s base that yields the work’s most affecting passage. Out of the surrounding darkness, nine squarish forms emerge, grading from black to brilliant blue from left to right, reaching in the prime of their middle a turquoise of almost unbearable richness. As they continue rightward, losing definition, the blues blanch out to white, the rhythm of their locomotion more irregular, a dramatic gap finally cutting the penultimate form off from all that preceded. At this point, inexplicably, a final shape—blue again but infused with a mysterious green nucleus—emerges on the other side of the breach, propelled by a flagellum of seeping color. It would be a cold heart and a literal mind that did not read this progression on some level as a journey from pre-existence to life to death to whatever lies beyond. The great cycle, which paganisms, monotheisms, and the sciences have all devoted tomes to, Mack is able to encapsulate in a sequence of nine shapes. And this is only a single element of a painting in which at least four other major processes are unfolding. There is a word for the caliber of artist who can accomplish so much, so well, so efficiently: virtuoso.
Despite his agility in pivoting between media and modes, never before has Barry Mack given himself over so completely to the spontaneous interaction of materials with the intuition of the painterly gesture. In Natural Forces he allows these elements to play their own duet, with himself an unseen conductor, marrying muse and mind in dynamic harmony. The painter’s friend, artist Astrid Fitzgerald, recently remarked on the new series with spot-on insight. In loosening his grip but retaining his focus, she intuited, Mack had embraced an age-old dictum: “Don’t push the river—it flows by itself.”
—Richard Speer is a contributing critic at ARTnews and is Visual Arts Critic at Willamette Week, the Pulitzer Prize-winning alternative newsweekly in Portland, Oregon. The author of the biography “Matt Lamb: The Art of Success” (John Wiley & Sons, 2005), he is also a contributor to Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, The Sacramento News & Review, Salon, and Opera News. For more information, visit www.RichardSpeer.com.
Transliterating the Transcendent State: Barry Mack’s Doorways
Barry Mack is a painter of transcendent experience in its manifold varieties. Passionately, persistently, and from a myriad of approaches, he has pursued this elusive theme since 1988. It was that year when, in the middle of the night—and unaided by any psychoactive substances—he found himself swept up in a spontaneous rush of creative euphoria, the intensity of which he had never before experienced. After a fleeting immersion, he emerged from the euphoric state, the effects of which lingered for several days, albeit in diluted form.
“I’ve been trying to get it back ever since,” the artist says today. “That’s why I paint what I paint.”
Given this genesis as a serious conceptual painter, it is entirely fitting that Mack’s current body of work is entitled Doorways, for it would not be an overstatement to suggest that his life’s mission is to paint Blake’s, Huxley’s, and Morrison’s perceptionary doors as if cleansed and infinite. As the artist explains it, the new paintings are “intended to be expressions of what an actual epiphany might look like: the utterly mysterious appearance of something far beyond mundane reality.” This is a tall order, and he who undertakes such a mission embarks on a journey of visual metonymy, of transliteration: converting characters in one alphabet into corresponding characters in another. Instead of transliterating Cyrillic to Greek, or Sanskrit to Kanji, Mack is transliterating ecstatic vision into an aesthetic experience via earthbound materials like pigment, acrylics, and linen. He is a reconnaissance scout venturing into foreign territory, then circling back around to convey his discoveries to the rest of us via the tools of the artist.
How exactly does a painter condense into a two- or three-dimensional image the “Eureka!” of Archimedes, the ecstasies of Joan of Arc, the apple-tree revelation of Isaac Newton? Mack took inspiration from Tanner and Rembrandt (he cites Belshazzar’s Feast, while I see The Night Watch), and osmotically channeled Caravaggio, I submit, riffing on the light-play of The Calling of Saint Matthew. The results of these influences, filtered through his unique pictorial imagination, may well be the most symbolically pregnant paintings of his career.
I have written before (see my introduction to Light on the Horizon) about Barry Mack’s fascination with the intersection of terrestrial and extraterrestrial, inner space and outer. In previous works like Awakening, the painter conjures fantastical landscapes that look like cinematic/painterly hybrids of Peter Jackson and Childe Hassam. These vistas, with their chasms and volcanos, yield to abstractions in Mack’s Ancient Light series. An interest in supersensory light is also evident in Final Ascent, which looks up from pyramidal structures towards a radiance in the sky that might be a solar event, a mothership, or the eye of God. And in High Above, a crucifix erected upon a Southwestern landscape is dwarfed by the enormous vault of heaven, whose O’Keeffean clouds swaddle a light source of inscrutable origination. The neo-transcendentalist overtones in these works are clear. In the tradition of Emerson and Fuller, Mack is stretching beyond the sectarian towards the universal. The transcendentalists studied Eastern mysticisms and believed that a spiritual ideal wider than that afforded by Christianity was graspable through meditation, intuition, and communion with nature. As their intellectual heir, Frank Lloyd Wright, famously noted, “I put a capital ‘N’ on nature and call it my church.” Mack’s own church is the infinity between a human being’s ears.
As the central figure in Doorways, the painter employs pillars of light that sear like phosphenes into the viewer’s eyes. Perhaps they are luminous impressions lingering from a Samadhi exchange between Mack and metaphysical teacher Leslie Temple-Thurston in an early 2005 workshop. Interestingly, the paintings’ vertical pillars, vaguely rectangular in form, evoke the monoliths in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which represent pivotal catalysts in man’s evolution from ape to rational animal to Star Child. Like the radiant inscription in Belshazzar’s Feast, Kubrick and Clarke’s monoliths—and Mack’s Doorways—visually metonymize a contact with a wholly unknowable intelligence, to which the only possible response is awe.
But while Mack’s pillars appear monolithic on first glance, they reveal themselves upon closer inspection as highly nuanced with swirly drips and interference colors; and gradations from white to yellow to orange to burnt umber; and a liquid-looking, ambery surface resulting from up to 100 layers of paints and varnishes. In In The Doorway, the drips approximate spermatozoa conglomerating around the light source’s center, as if a metaphoric fertilization were about to take place. With its two pillars capped by a horizontal element, the painting suggests the mathematical Pi or post-and-lintel construction, which the Greeks employed aesthetico-mathematically to produce the visually perfect Golden Rectangle. In the expansively titled Doorway into the Partially Veiled, Melting, and Dematerializing Landscape, four light sources are linked by a horizontal element just below the picture plane’s midpoint, a jaunty, devil-may-care gesture contrasting with the linear divider.
I see a Zen influence in the triptychesque In the Doorway, The Appearance of One, and Another Appearance, and in the Form and Freedom series. These latter stand among the most haunting in the current body of work, for their juxtaposition of square emanations with luscious, painterly gestures reminds us that these are, after all, paintings, not just metaphysical statements. The expressionistic gestural caps—curvy in I, straighter in II, straight in III—are so calligraphic, so free, so creamy in application, they absolutely make the series. By contrasting the ethereality of the light blocks with the physicality of the single overarching brushstrokes, these striking works show the harmonious coexistence of Mack’s talking-point oppositions of light/dark and male/female and suggest a dialectic integration of these polarities. Form and Freedom I, in particular, may be as close as Mack has yet come to a minimalist masterpiece.
The light is more diffuse in Light on White Mountain, spreading across the canvas rather than concentrating in one mass, as if to evoke the oceanic rush, the outward-spreading warmth punctuated by giddy coolness, of the body high. Micro Monolithic Landscape, meanwhile, is grounded with a low, serrated horizon and hints of the jewel motif and organic shapes to come in Declaration. Speaking in Paint takes this progression a step further, with a single drop of gold within a circle of purple-tinted cobalt and, on the lower right, an organic form that looks like Flash Gordon’s spaceship. At the zenith of the jewelbox series is Declaration, an antipode to Form and Freedom I’s austerity, yet no less impressive as the logical culmination of a train of visual thought. The piece’s central mystic pillar contains broken vertical brushstrokes; five white circles; four dots of intense, Yves Klein-meets-Willy-Wonka blue; three island clusters of darker blue; and an astounding pool of Caribbean aqua that looks as if you could dive in and swim into eternity. Yet even in the face of such ornateness, the work remains resolutely abstract; its suggestion of aquamarines and topazes laid out in a jewel box is poetic analogy on our part, while the imagery itself remains austere. This is one of my pretty masks, the work seems to announce, and I come bearing gifts this time—but make no mistake: I am still the fearsome epiphany, and I am come down to earth to scare the living shit out of you.
In Mack’s latest works, gallerist Gary Lawrence sees the white light of the near-death experience, while Mack himself conceptualizes his latest works as symbolizing “the conflict between male and female, light and darkness, abstract and literal.” I see this conflict in the paintings, and more: not only the clash, but also the the dialectic reconciliation, of earth and ether, Aristotle and Plato, induction and deduction, archaeology and astronomy, the decorative and the spartan. Between the bookends of Freedom and Form and Declaration is a whole world of division and coalescence.
The pursuit of a visual representation of elevated human consciousness has been so omnipresent in Barry Mack’s work as to have become a leitmotif, although he has attacked this theme from so many angles that the coherence of his quest has not always been immediately apparent. For those lacking a long view on his career, the artist’s dogged pursuit of a single artistic goal may be obscured by the eclecticism of his media: digital, drawing, acrylic, oils, charcoal, pastels, photography, video, and monotype prints, all in a plethora of representational and non-objective styles. In a favorable Willamette Week review of one of Mack’s first shows at Lawrence Gallery, I donned the hat of the aesthetic psychoanalyst and pronounced this eclecticism “stylistic schizophrenia!” The more I have followed the work, the more I have seen Mack’s experimentation as progression rather than pathology. This evolution has become clearer in recent seasons as he has moved from the more literalist flavor of Final Ascent-era works, through the transitional period of his craggy landscapes of the mind, into the present as he tackles the same subject matter by way of pure abstraction. In his every mode and across the totality of his oeuvre, his obsession with exploring and conveying states beyond the ordinary reigns supreme. It is a fact of his catholic ambidexterity that he employs multiple modalities in this quest. As Joseph Campbell catalogued with such poignance, God has many faces and is best examined not through a microscope, but through a prism. Mack’s God is the transcendent state; his prism is his paintbrush.
—Richard Speer, author of Matt Lamb: The Art of Success (Wiley, 2005); visual arts critic, Willamette Week (Portland, OR); contributor, ARTnews, Opera News, Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, The Sacramento News & Review
As a critic, I look upon Barry Mack’s works with an appreciation of their fearless oppositions of darkness and light, their undulating curves juxtaposed with unforgiving spikes, and their foreboding but affecting pictorial vocabulary. Doffing my critical hat and experiencing the works simply as an art lover, I’m more taken in by the otherworldly imagery they depict, whose ambiguity of time and place—and even of dimension—speaks more forcefully to me than would any pat explanations of their subject matter. Are these vistas landscapes or dreamscapes, utopias or dystopias, visions of a world prehistoric or post-apocalyptic?
At first, many of Mack’s recent works come across as pure abstraction. Then, slowly, the eye grows accustomed to the odd forms and deep chasms that emerge, cloaked in shadow but punctuated by shafts of sunshine slicing down as through ancient Alps. Yet who is to say the initial impression of the works as abstract is wrong? Perhaps they portray no earthly chasm, but fissures in the very fabric of space-time, wherein the fantastical cities suggested in certain works may co-exist in tesseractal realms both primordial and futuristic. Considered from yet another perspective, the dramatically plunging “V” shapes that recur in this body of work appear with leitmotif-like regularity, subtly suggestive of human anatomy, such that we cannot know for sure whether their topography is micro- or macrocosmic.
Mack’s works in the medium of acrylic show a growing confidence in surface effects, which I applaud, and constitute by definition a departure from the glossy-smooth surfaces of his digital prints. Yet the paintings share with the artist’s digital explorations an interest in worlds beyond the everyday. They open our doors of perception to realms we may have glimpsed only briefly, in dreams or nightmares, trances or trips, and in doing so, they imply something radical about the relationship of outer space to inner: that the two may, in fact, be one and the same.
Visual Arts Critic, Willamette Week (Portland, Oregon), Contributor, ARTnews, Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, Opera News, The Sacramento News & Review