I don't intend this as faint praise, but I'm comfortable with Rich Barlow's paintings. At first I attributed this ease to a familiarity with the type of work he makes, which references traditions of landscape representation, and the way he softens familiar motifs by using sumptuous silver leaf and multiple layers of vellum. Then I realized: I recognize them -- at least one of them. The image below is based of the cover art from Hüsker Dü's 1984 album New Day Rising, focusing only on the landscape. (For others of his 12 x 12"-square works, I had to look at the titles: below are Amon Düül II's Phallus Dei and Further by Flying Saucer Attack.)
Barlow's "Covers" series, part of the group show Landescape now on view at Minneapolis' Thomas Barry Gallery, plays with notions of landscape and subtly suggests an interrogation of what landscape is and how we ascribe significance -- or commonly in the realm of rock records, myth. In a general statement on his recent work, Barlow writes:
Though inherently meaningless, the natural world is again and again imbued with meaning in visual art. It is treated as a repository of emotion, emblem of nation, and expression of spirituality, inscribed with myth and history and controlled through our gaze. When viewing the natural world and its representations, there is a seductive tendency assume that the meanings we ascribe to it are themselves natural. These meanings are arbitrary, ephemeral and dependent on context, but the desire to render them universal is powerful.
But this series seems not to grasp for meaning but to muddle it in dreamy layers of vellum and foil, raising more questions than answers. He continues:
I am interested in how this imagery is used to produce meaning within the album covers themselves, supposedly saying something about the artist or music they represent, but also in how album covers and other popular culture imagery is used to produce self. I reproduce the images in silver leaf on several layers of vellum, making the images frustratingly unstable and difficult to consume. This difficulty in fully comprehending or consuming the image creates a deferral and heightens the desire to consume the image. The more the meaning is drained from these images and the more their consumption is deferred the more beautiful they become.
Barlow's installation of 25 album-sized works at Thomas Barry delivers on beauty -- trapped under a layer of vellum, the metallic foil appears foggy white; the layers of silverleaf shift from shine to flat black in the gallery's light -- but the significance of the source material gets lost. The gallerist offers neither didactic cards telling the artwork titles or material (they may have appeared on a price list located elsewhere in the gallery) nor the artist's statement to offer a clue that "A Forest," say, is an interpretation of an album by the Cure, instead of say, a painting of... a forest.
But on second thought, perhaps that entirely misses the point.