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For a space junkie like me who came of age during NASA's glory days, news that "2001: Kyle Barnette's Space Odyssey" would be staged at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood generated great expectations.
I approached it hoping for something as stirring as, say, For All Mankind, Al Reinert's majestic and unjustly obscure 1989 documentary about the Apollo moon missions. Reinert, a writer for Texas Monthly magazine, sifted through countless hours of largely unseen NASA archival footage for his labor of love, which fuses sounds and images from every Apollo flight into one voyage to the moon. It's a hauntingly beautiful movie, made all the more memorable by Brian Eno's atmospheric musical score. And for its fullest impact, it really should be seen on the big screen. But since that's unlikely (unless it's resurrected for a film festival), space enthusiasts should by all means track it down on video.
This small Kyle Barnette exhibition pales in contrast to the Reinert documentary. It, too, appears to be a labor of love for the artist, who was born in 1962 near Houston -- ground zero for America's space race. The posted introduction to the show (the curator is not identified here or elsewhere) tells us that Barnette "grew up in a place that made the Jetsons look everyday. Growing up it was almost commonplace to watch rockets shoot out into space."
The intro also points out that Barnette was influenced by such pop iconography as Andy Warhol's silk-screens and Roy Lichtenstein's comics-inspired canvases. Maybe Barnette shares a pop sensibility with these and other artists, but I have a hard time detecting their influences in his work here, which at times verges on bland.
The Art and Culture Center's main gallery is taken up by a few very large paintings -- as in 8 by 15 feet to 8 by 25 feet -- and some mixed-media sculptures. The acrylic Splashdown (2000) gives us a variety of sea creatures in greens and purples.
Laguna Madre (2000), also in acrylic, consists of four large panels in black and white. Much of the left portion of the painting is dominated by a scuba diver wearing white trunks and brandishing a spear, while, to the far right, we see a 1960s convertible, a family, a hint of skyline, and some unidentified debris. The posted commentary claims this pared-down imagery "reconciles the artist's thoughts about the Apollo space program and the wide open spaces common in Texas."
The gigantic, five-panel acrylic 900 Miles (2000) prompts the curator to write even grander hyperbole, even though it's made up mostly of empty space and a simple image of scuba divers swarming on and around a space capsule that has landed in the ocean: "Our hero, Icarus, stands feebly on a rubber raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Unstable due to weightlessness during the mythological journey, an astronaut is left exposed and stranded....
"By placing the subject of the painting far to the right side, movement is suggested by the physics model of declaring where something is and where it is not. Toadstools, frog-like humans, water, and air describe a somber setting far removed from the romance of a new lunar frontier, thus ending the first space age."
The mixed-media pieces are more effective, in part because of their whimsicality. Space Probe (2001) combines two found objects -- an old-fashioned television antenna and what looks to be a portion of the hull of a boat -- with a spinning red light. Hubble(2001) uses parts of what appear to be Apollo spacecraft to house a projector that casts an image of the Earth as seen from space onto a wall.
Self-importance creeps back into the show, however, with the monumental Spider (2001), an acrylic image of a lunar liftoff crudely painted onto a curving wall at the far end of the gallery. The curator's commentary here explains, "A deliberately clumsy application of paint sets up a contrast to the precision needed to engineer the actual event." Such famous 19th-century paintings as Washington Crossing the Delaware and Raft of the Medusa are also invoked.
The exhibit reaches its high point when the viewer steps away from the clunky Spider and through sheer black curtains into the museum's middle gallery, which is darkened except for black lights that illuminate the big photo silk-screens on the walls (four in the middle gallery and two in the small gallery adjacent to it). Most of the imagery is abstract, with occasional references to rockets and liftoffs, and the bright, glowing colors are an exhilarating contrast to the acrylics of the previous gallery.
The final gallery includes more than a dozen pieces in various combinations of media and methods, including acrylic, watercolor, and silk-screen, with such titles as Liftoff, New Moon, Separation, Splashdown, Recovery, Asteroid, and South Pole. Most are as uninspired as their titles, although Solar Systemhas some verve, and a clever visual joke is at work in Muttnik, an image of a space module that, if looked at long enough, begins more and more to resemble a dog's snout.
Maybe the Barnette show seems a little flat because the space program has become so routine. What once kept Americans riveted to their television sets now merits a mere sound bite on the news. Space stations come and go. Astronauts spend record amounts of time in orbit. A millionaire buys himself a flight on the space shuttle.
Or maybe increasingly sophisticated filmmaking technology makes it impossible for the reality of space odysseys to compete with Hollywood, California. Back in 1968 -- the year of the Stanley Kubrick movie to which the title of Barnette's show refers -- an aura of magic and mystery still surrounded space travel, both on and off screen. Now we're just jaded, and Barnette's nostalgia seems almost quaint.