by Jody Zellen
"Untitled," enamel/photographic transfer
"Untitled," enamel/photographic transfer
"Self Serve," enamel/photographic transfer
(Robert Berman Gallery, Santa Monica) Bill Barminski is a versatile artist who draws from popular culture to create visually complex paintings. They function as cutting commentaries on our consumer culture by wittily appropriating images from advertising's past. In addition to making paintings, Barminski has also produced CD- ROMs that not only animate his paintings, but also give life and voice to the characters of his imagination. These works inform each other. The CD-ROM, among other things, provides viewers with a virtual gallery, an archive of Barminski's work. This gallery does not simulate the walls of the current exhibition, but rather the paintings become the architecture through which one travels. Viewers can stop and look and click on an image. Sometimes an aspect of the painting will come to life, other times a new window-- or a new world -- will open up to show a film, or a cartoon character reciting a diatribe.
In the past Barminski has carefully applied layers of paint to his canvases to create his imagery. In these new works, for the first time he is using the technique of photo-transfer. He begins with a photographed reality. What becomes all too clear however, (especially in relation to the CD-ROM) is that the photograph no longer represents an observed reality. Barminski's photographically derrived images of gas stations, grenades, and cartoon characters serve as the background to his compositions, upon which other symbols, words and images drawn from advertising rest.
For example in the title work of this exhibition, "Self Service" letters that spell out "hell" are embedded in and on top of the image. In both cases, Barminski strings his letters across the canvas in a non-linear fashion, enabling the viewer to construct many alternate words. Centered in the composition is an overflowing glass of beer.
Barminski's paintings function as puzzles, like rebuses: Riddles to be solved as the viewer tries to figure out the relationships betweens the words and the images on the canvas. In an untitled painting from 1997, a struggling couple is the central element of the composition. This appropriated image is sandwiched between a modeled yellow background into which the letters "E A T M E" are embedded and the word "Kill" is painted in three dimensional block letters on the top surface of the canvas. Barminski uses his paint sculpturally, like plaster or icing on a cake, creating many layers. Sometimes words or letters seem carved into the surface, created not with color but by physical depth and projection. Objects or letters are then repeated, as they emerge from the depths of the canvas.
Most of Barminski's paintings are satirical social commentaries where images from consumer and popular culture like a coke bottle, TV Guide or the American flag are stripped of their identifying logos and re-positioned into Barminski's world. It's a world where sex and profanity and violence lie just beneath the surface. Barminski's work is never didactic, rather it is a humorous attack on the mechanisms that propel consumer culture.
The paintings have an internal momentum-- a movement that is often achieved through layering or through a purposeful mis-registration of images. This movement is more easily achieved in the CD-ROM where the paintings come to life. The Encyclopedia of Clamps, Barminski's new CD-ROM, made in collaboration with Webster Lewin and Jerry Hesketh, is a glimpse into Barminski's world. Included is an encyclopedia of the history of clamps, an advertisement for Muse X editions, with whom Barminski has created a suite of prints, as well as numerous skits, sketches and animated sequences that Barminski, et al have created for this medium. The CD-ROM contains more than the paintings but it needs a computer to be viewed. It is not supplementary information but a work of art itself.
Barminski is aware of the pros and cons of both methods of working and, although these works inform each other, they are not dependent upon each other to be successful. The paintings stimulate the visual senses. The CD-ROM is an all encompasssing journey that requires time and patience to experience.