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September 8 - October 10, 2001 at Robert Berman Gallery's D-5 Projects, Santa Monica

by Bill Lasarow

The title of Bill Barminski’s current exhibition speaks volumes: Filter. This artist’s track record is that of a one man MTV studio. His roughly gridded paintings, a Barminski staple for years, are something of a catalogue of rhetorical images, words and symbols selected from commercial culture. Although not part of this show, he has packed much of this content into CD-ROMs that flow the two-dimensional images into virtual spaces that are by turns entertaining, enlightening and nauseating. The lowbrow icons Barminski favors are appropriated, manipulated into nettlesome simulacrums, and repackaged with an undeniable feeling of critical intent. Warhol’s faux-naif embrace of this culture may historically inform Barminski’s work, but it’s the enemy.

The central characters of various cartoons, toys, or ads become the main players here because a series of sculptures fashion their faces into gas masks. You can mentally just see yourself slipping on one of these babies to, uh, filter out the poisons that the culture forcefeeds us--while presenting the features of Bambi, Mickey Mouse, or Elsie the cow to the world of outsiders. Barminski is clearly gearing us up for the Revolution. The masses, outfitted in Disney and Hanna-Barbera attire, can give the media execs a taste of their own medicine.

Let’s return to the new paintings, though, which manage to return us back to the slipstream from which the terror-masks were culled. If there were ever any doubts that there is a hierarchy of visual importance in them the gas masks now banish the notion. A single depiction of one of these starring characters occupies a cell in each panel, supervising the teeming visual rhythms of the whole. Try to resist the temptation to reduce the sheer volume of incident into a singular impression and then stopping. Not that seeing the paintings this way is a waste--the sense of time and space rushing by has the deja vu feeling of revisiting a broad expanse of familiar mental territory. Of course, given the pale colors, the narrow tonal palette, and the compartmentalization, it is equally claustrophobic. This tension is, without question, both crucial and effective to Barminski’s pointed aesthetic critique. But not spending time with the particulars is to miss out on where the artist’s heart really lies.

For example, take a look at the tire hovering above a pale green, now sainted, Barbie in The Barbie. In The Captain America, heroic workers from an early Chinese Communist propaganda poster are placed to as to salute none other than the good Captain A. In The Fred, above the empty head of a smiling Mr. Flintstone your eye can’t help but register the word “FREEDUM.” The “B” is appropriately missing, but a vertical tower of “F”s make Fred’s name, the misspelling of freedom, not to mention the happy little family waving bye-bye, stick to the front lobe of your brain.

"IBM Blue Mickey", latex
rubber gas mask, 2001.

"The Mickey", enamel and ink
print on wood, 48" x 48". 2001.

"The Fred", enamel and ink
print on wood, 48" x 48". 2001.

"The Barbie", enamel and ink
print on wood, 48" x 48". 2001.

Images also echo within a picture as well as throughout them. Perhaps it is a large bikini-clad model next to a small version of same, together seeming to sidle up to a Dairy Queen vanilla cone. Or a row of small Holiday Inn--sorry, Holiday Gun--signs that pushes your eye back up to a larger view of the same sign. The repetition is like the promotional posters that pop up at construction sites to tout current movies or upcoming concerts. And so on.

There is no denying the relentless forcefulness of what Barminski does, or his ability to involve us in this energetic outpouring of visual and verbal associations. These qualities lend his voice both authority and charm. But the polemical nature at the core of this work is more questionable. One feels led in quite a different direction than the corporate entrepreneurs steer us with such expert-tease. But make no mistake, we are being steered. The truckload of visual information may have started out filtered. But Barminski is his own re-filtration plant. It’s probably just as well that he does his heavy lifting here in the art world. If he were a politician he might be dangerous.