written by DANIEL KANY

Artist Ellie Barnet.

Six months before, gallerist Elizabeth Moss asked Ellie Barnet to produce 20 paintings for a solo show. Barnet rose to the challenge and got to work making landscapes, interiors and figurative oil-on-canvas images.

While you may not have seen Barnet’s works before, you may have seen Barnet in one of the paintings by her grandfather—the great American painter Will Barnet (1911–2012), whose extraordinary career as a painter and educator led to his being awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2011. Will Barnet worked until the day he passed away at the age of 101, and the unfinished painting on his easel was a portrait of Ellie.

In other words, Ellie Barnet grew up surrounded by art—and not just any art. Her grandfather was an unusual painter who moved between figurative and abstract art, and he was unique as a leading American painter insofar as the anchor of his work comprised domestic, figurative scenes featuring his family.

Will Barnet's 2012 unfinished portrait of his granddaughter, Ellie. Oil on canvas.

Tidal fragments, 2022, 40 x 30 inches, oil on canvas

Ellie Barnet’s work is quite different from her grandfather’s. While he worked tirelessly to essentialize his figurative scenes to their most simple and elegant abstract structures, her canvases are much looser in terms of their structure, style and stroke. She often uses different styles within a single canvas. While this can connect her representational paintings to brushy abstraction, she never makes purely abstract images. Consider her 40- x 30-inch Tidal Fragments (2022), in which a young girl in a green-striped dress investigates a small tidal pool. The background features a stylized sky with a bright sun and a horizon line split between ocean-side trees and the ocean. The central figure is bending over and away from the viewer with her focus completely enveloped by the tiny pool in which she stands. She is rendered in a realistic style that is significantly looser and brushier than the top-third background of the image. Most striking is the bottom two-thirds of the scene: the rocky setting of the pool, which is brushy to the point of abstraction and the blue, green, brown and white strokes only read as oceanside rocks because of the context of the figure and the far ground. To say the least, this image has virtually no superficial resemblance to the uber-flat work of Will Barnet where you will almost never find an obvious brushstroke out on its own. Where this does share some of Will Barnet’s pictorial logic is in the subtle structure, which quietly spirals out from the central figure, almost like a nautilus.

While Ellie Barnet’s works are driven by sensibility for their compositional and painterly success, her content is primarily about the subjectivity of the viewer—the personal experience of the image.

A World Within, 2019, 30 x 20 inches, oil on canvas

In A World Within (2020), for example, we see a young girl playing with toys in a window bay. In the cool light of early morning, she is completely focused on her playthings, seemingly unaware of the viewer. This is what is sometimes referred to as an “absorptive” image (in the terms of art historian Michael Fried’s distinction between absorptive and theatrical images). This painting is quiet and gentle in a sense that can only be seen as domestic—the girl is at home; she is safe in her primary sanctuary.

Barnet develops this notion in a compelling and fresh way that adds to the vocabulary of the gaze, a key term in the pictorial theory of the last 40 years. The presumptive gaze of 19th-century paintings, for example, was that of the dominating male, since the painters and their patrons were primarily men.

Consider Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus (above) that was a hit of the 1863 Salon in Paris: We see the nude voluptuous Venus seeming to wake on the waves of the ocean. Her staged, theatrical image is turned away from us, and so we are invited to hold our (ostensibly male and lascivious) gaze on her as long as we want.

The Sea Withdrew, 2022, 24 x 36 inches, oil on canvas

Caspar David Friedrich’s 1810 Monk by the Sea

Ellie Barnet’s paintings of females, however, tend to be of children in an outdoor setting where they would presumably welcome a parental gaze watching over them, keeping them safe, even while they explore the world around them. In the 2022 The Sea Withdrew, a child walks on a broad beach, engaged and exploring. But rather than having the overwhelming experience of the sublime of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1810 Monk by the Sea (above), Barnet’s figure explores the ebb-tide beach with a fascinated and growing mind within a sense of sanctuary and safety, watched over by a loving eye.

While Barnet does not apply her sense of domestic gaze to all of her works, she uses it often and to excellent effect. One of her leading leitmotifs, for example, is an interior window looking to the outside world. The obvious metaphor is window as landscape painting, and this is a certainly a key concern for the Portland-based painter. And yet she also uses the window to establish dual notions of place: the interior space—the home and sanctuary where anyone in that space will see the world from that window in a similar fashion; and as an external world marker, so the viewer feels the sense of place, such as the Maine coast. Quietly, for example, she shares her sense of memory and awe in her grandfather’s New York studio in A Certain Slant (2022). This too is a subdued image driven by a blue palette and the window that marks the sense of place. Even the shape of the painting support matches the tall, vertical forms of the window and its component panes. This too is a sanctuary for her, but not just from a domestic perspective: It is church-like and unabashedly spiritual.

A Certain Slant, 2022, 24 x 12 inches, oil on canvas

Evening Sky, 2022, 20 x 30 Inches, oil on canvas

Our Roots are Densely Tangled, 2022, 30 x 20 inches, oil on canvas

Barnet also imbues buildings with this sense from the outside, particularly fully familiar and familial cottages. In Evening Sky (2022), we see a sunset by an oceanside cottage, but we actually see the setting sun through the corner of the porch, and this pulls us into the domestic space as well as into the goldening seaside landscape. In Our Roots are Densely Tangled (2022), Barnet shows us a neighborhood landscape at night. Through the dark of an overgrown backyard, we see a far-off house lighted stolidly from the outside, but in the center we settle on the centered vertical golden rectangle of the lighted-from-within house before us. The warm and inviting form again matches the shape of the painterly support. In an unusual gesture, the composition spirals out from this golden window form. Rather than physical motion, however, the visual shift through the composition gives a sense of subjectivity and perspective, as though that interior is always something of a psychological starting point. Despite its mystical echoes and unusually inverted visual logic, it is an easy image to read; after all, it is ultimately all about welcoming the viewer to where they belong.

Restless Hearts, 2022, 30 x 40 inches, oil on canvas

The act of looking and the subjectivity of the viewer is often the key to Barnet’s paintings. In Restless Hearts (2022), we see a child and a dog standing in a tidal pool looking off to the far-ground distance. What we notice, however, is that where they are looking is framed by a foreground tree in relief and the far landscape shape is marked by a bold red stroke—an abstract gesture without peer in the rest of the picture. What they are looking at, we are led to consider—however subtly, is a painting, since it is set apart both visually and stylistically.

Time is but a Window, 2022, 24 x 30 inches, oil on canvas

Awaiting the Bloom, 2022, 28 x 22 inches, oil on canvas

Ultimately, Barnet’s works are about the melding of painting, subjectivity, memory and process. “I don’t particularly like to talk about my works,” Barnet says, “since I don’t talk my way through them. My process incorporates observation and memory, but my ultimate goal is to make a good painting. If I think something is overpainted or needs to be changed, I don’t hesitate to break out the sander, take it out and rework that section. I also don’t hesitate to leave out details if they might make a painting too busy. In Time is but a Window (2022), for example, you can see where I left the underpainting stand for the window muntins—because they worked visually. And in Awaiting the Bloom (2022), I left the forms for a couple of objects next to the flower vase that are clearly not finished. While memory and observation are very important for me, I kind of flip them on their heads here. I didn’t paint those in because of my final focus on process and making a good painting. Sometimes the most important decision in painting is knowing when to stop.”

. . .

Ellie Barnet’s show at Moss Galleries runs through July 23.

Previous StoryNext Story