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BILL BARMINSKI

September 10 - October 4, 2005 at Berman/Turner Projects, Santa Monica

by Bill Lasarow


If we aren’t quite ready to elevate those appealing and appalling faces with two mouths to iconic status, Bill Barminski wants us to at least consider the option. His new series of paintings have been christened "About Face," and it does not appear that he wants us to think "aha, portraits," or to signal some personal ideological epiphany has taken place.

For those who’ve been following Barminski’s post-counterculture path, which winds its way through satirical graphic novels, political cartooning, music videos, CD-ROMs, and the online "Cyclops Boy—One Eye Detective", his painting exhibitions are comfort food--albeit with attention deficit disorder. It’s readily recognizable stuff, executed with lively authority, and packed with visual incident. When it comes to creating a static image, his impulse is towards clutter, just so long as it all ends up looking clean and orderly.

Well, that’s how it seems at first, rather like the Iraq War: Two years ago the Mission seemed Accomplished, well it wasn’t, now was it" The analogy is not offered lightly given the anti-establishment and anti-consumerist rhetoric that pulses like a major artery through Barminski’s work (both in and beyond the gallery). The two-smile boy beaming at you alongside adult figures made anonymous by cropping or censoring devices conveys the naive excitement of the uninitiated in his expression. Mom (or maybe it’s Mrs. Robinson) drinks directly from a jar of instant coffee in one image, while a dark hand offers an equally gray Coke bottle, ever so subtly labeled "DRUG." There has gotta be one with a cigarette smoker in the pipeline.

Whether adolescent or adult, the smiling faces are the sole moment of individual identity permitted here. The use of paint, appliqué, cropping and positioning reduces the rest of the cast to types and symbols, with the dynamic an offbeat call and response. It all adds up to the very image of a sick form of cultural conformity. That queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach is the wretchedness and dishonesty that Barminski places square at the heart of consumerism.

The extra mouths are clearly a big deal--well, there they are in each image. Barminski has used the device for years. The immediacy of emotional impact and the intellectual temptation to read them symbolically jostle with one another. Aside from sheer frequency, these faces certainly indulge too deeply in stereotyping not to be purposive. They imbue on each otherwise overly familiar face an alien quality, as well as a sensation of motion. If the image conveys both the feeling and idea that we are addicts of lousy or dangerous commercial and political products, there is a concurrent and powerful suggestion of oral gratification. Most of all it really makes the feeling behind that damned smile utterly vacuous, and finally scary.


Untitled from the "About Face"
series, 2005, mixed media.










Untitled from the "About Face"
series, 2005, mixed media.










Untitled from the "About Face"
series, 2005, mixed media.










Untitled from the "About Face"
series, 2005, mixed media.

Why the fifties graphic advertising style is so close to Barminski’s heart and thinking has got to go beyond mere personal fascination. The theme of repressed individuality and hidden moral hypocrisy is just too familiar and easy to swallow by now, thanks to the last 40 years of movies and other forms of pop culture. This undoubtedly muffles the nuances, but worse it makes you wonder if the needle didn’t get stuck in a groove somewhere along the way.

The special effect throughout is the use of drip, line, scratch and scrape to speckle the surface of each painting. At a distance this functions as visual "white noise," blending in with the background to give the whole a push, a vibration that makes the eye take notice. Getting closer, the effect is that of aging posters or magazine pages that you might dig out of your parents’ attic. For how many of us does "history" mean "remember those great ads with the Maytag man"" Barminski loves making references to art’s formalism and history along the way, but he is mainly engaged in a graphic scream that we are on the highway to hell.