Christopher Callahan and the Barnes legacy

One painter who bought Albert Barnes's vision

'Dating Picasso': The influences cover the walls.
'Dating Picasso': The influences cover the walls.

The Barnes Foundation is in the news again. Everyone is wondering just what corners of our Philadelphia controversy will be played out in Don Argott's new documentary, The Art of the Steal, which just premiered to admiring reviews at the Toronto Film Festival and is slated to arrive at the New York Film Festival this week. The film purportedly relies on content from John Andersen's 2003 book, Art Held Hostage, which describes the phenomenal legal, ethical and managerial problems surrounding this thoroughly regrettable attempt to move the Barnes from Merion to a new Parkway site downtown.

Argott's film, however, won't dwell upon one particular negative consequence in re-engineering the Barnes: What will happen to the "history"— the legacy— of Barnes-trained and -influenced artists once the collection moves to a snappy contemporary building, and the education program is "updated" accordingly?

If curators, art scholars, gallery owners, museum professionals, art lovers and patrons care to notice, a bona fide "Barnes School" of artists currently exists in Philadelphia. In their work, one can readily identify the influence of visual motifs in the paintings Albert Barnes collected. Pictorial evidence of Barnes's educational principles can be found in their work as well. This is a Philadelphia-born and -bred tradition in art-making that is, quite frankly, receiving the short shrift from all sides in the debate over moving the Barnes.

Retinal relief

Art created by those who have absorbed and embraced Barnes principles generally reveals thoughtful composition, an engagement with color rather than line, and a highly personal expressiveness. You might call this work "retinal" (Marcel Duchamp's term), because it's usually just plain gorgeous to look at, regardless of the subject.

Philosophical position, political premise, and thought aren't necessarily abandoned in the subject matter of a Barnes-influenced work. It's just that aesthetics take the highest priority in its fashioning. And we all know just how unfashionable aesthetics has become in the art world of late.

So retinally starved art lovers may be pleasantly surprised to learn that, over the years, actual serious art students could be found peppered among the housewives, Sunday painters and retirees who have constituted the bulk of the Barnes Foundation's art classes. To these painters, the Foundation has provided a safe haven in which to explore and develop an artistic vision without distractions.

Spurned by galleries

When I studied at the Barnes Foundation in the '90s, these artists were producing interesting art that seemed to grow in richness with time and focus. Back then, none of them had contracts with galleries. They had resigned themselves to the prevailing modernist notion that the public probably wouldn't understand or appreciate their work, so why bother seeking to show it?

One certainly couldn't create moneymaking art; one made art because one just had to. This philosophy was spoken from the teacher's pulpit and carried into the studios of Barnes students. The canvases of these artists must have piled up in their studios as the art world increasingly became entranced with "big" art— the conceptual, the political, the anti-retinal.

So, where is all this Barnes-inspired art now? And why aren't more people celebrating it?

An "'outsider' at the Knapp

With great pleasure I learned recently of the Knapp Gallery's current exhibition by the former Barnesian Chris Callahan. The Knapp has billed Callahan as an "outsider" artist, most likely because he lacks "official" art training, other than what he received at the Barnes and through self-study.

Regardless, Callahan possesses the focus of a true artist— what I would call the quintessential Barnes Foundation insider. Through years of attending classes, working with Barnes's acolyte Violette de Mazia, and ultimately teaching in the Barnes docent program himself, Callahan absorbed the Barnes principles so that now he applies them subconsciously to his unique painting style.

Barnes students, exposed to the rich variety of influences hanging on the Foundation's walls, often engage in a playful game of "find the artist" in each other's work. Callahan's canvases reveal a highly personal synthesis of influences represented in the Barnes collection, so present and former Barnes students will delight to find Paul Klee, Chaim Soutine, Paul Cézanne ( of course!), Henri Rousseau, Charles Roualt, and Pablo Picasso among others incorporated seamlessly in Callahan's colors, forms and compositions.

The symbols of Narberth and beyond

Perhaps in deference to the Foundation's often-overshadowed decorative arts objects, Callahan uses a sgraffito (scratched technique) on some canvases, such as is used in making Pennsylvania Dutch slipware. Another painting of some card players, seemingly gives a nod to the style of Harry Sefarbi, the extraordinary Barnes painter and former teacher.

Barnes influences aside, Callahan uses certain forms repetitively, drawn from his local landscape (he lives in Narberth) and probably from people he knows to create a sort of symbolic language in his canvases. Round faces with wide eyes, profiled heads that appear statically interspersed with other forms in flat space, almond-eyed women, bicycles, cars, houses, tall buildings, suns and moons all inhabit his organic world. Bold colors of fuchsia, scarlet, amber and green, and brush strokes sometimes flat and smoothed, other times sweeping, daubed or impastoed, add up to a vision of the world that's beautiful although imperfect.

The show's title, "Ascension," is apt in that it shows us that there is an exalted way to perceive much of this world— and that is the artist's way.♦

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