The art of memory

By Christine Clark, April 2011

Dave Barnes’ creations tickle our nostalgia glands. And you know where that leads...

During the long drive out into the deep dark woods of Sooke, I felt completely uncertain about who I would find when I arrived at the home studio of artist and illustrator Dave Barnes. We had never met, and in an email leading up to our visit, he wrote, “Would love to have you out…only thing is…we’ve got a colicky newborn, and I don’t have a cool/interesting separate studio, just…a room in our house…so it might not be worth the drive?” It seemed a bit enigmatic (or timid?), but the person who greeted me was thoughtful and friendly, if a bit reticent, and even a little excited, and he put the cookies I brought out on a plate and immediately offered me a cup of coffee. 

His studio was indeed a small bedroom (not an uncommon phenomenon among artists) but was far from uninteresting. It was the kind of space where you could imagine a young Norman Rockwell working (in an apron and with spectacles on his head); it was very ordered and precise, with the tubes of paint hanging in neat rows above the work table, but also extremely charming (as studio spaces often are) with the small treasures (I saw a little collection of those tiny plastic soldiers whose boots are permanently attached to a piece of plastic dirt, for instance) and the drips of paint, the jug of clean brushes and his well-worn books. 

This pleasant precision was evident throughout the house; a gorgeous house that Dave and his wife unimaginably found on Craigslist while living in a cramped and expensive apartment in Vancouver about two years ago. There was no sign of the disorder one normally expects in a house sheltering both an artist and a newborn, and although there was a small baby, he didn’t cry at all during our visit (well, maybe once).

It’s seems easier in some ways to write about Dave Barnes’ home and his family and even his landlady (who I met and who told me that kelp pickles are definitely not worth the effort), than it is to discuss his work. He’s been included in group shows all over Canada and the US, and he had a number of his recent pieces hanging in the living room in preparation for a two person show called Wild Things at View Art Gallery. He seemed slightly embarrassed to have so many of his own paintings on display, but as we stood there, me awkwardly trying to draw him out about his work, he said, very quietly, “surrealism.” 

Dave makes extensive use of “childish” imagery, but the children in his paintings are often depicted with violently coloured lines spewing from their mouths or their eyes. Some of them have great convoluted masses extending from their brains. Sometimes his suns are crying, and sometimes the trees are made from flesh and blood. There are snakes and dark clouds, and it looks the way that madness must feel. 

What makes all this misery truly disconcerting is that the characters have been borrowed from old illustrations (as in Dick and Jane and the dog, Spot), and so, in spite of the intensity and apparent insanity, they tend to evoke a sense of sentimentality. The paintings are balanced between two terrible extremes: one, a pretty fantasy of a sweet long-ago; the other, a tragic nightmare, preferably avoided. 

Much of Dave’s work is painted on found items, like old cupboard doors, and as simple objects they feel comfortably familiar. The same is true of the shaped paintings, the rabbits and eagles and moose (oh my!) which are fashioned from smaller pieces of scrap wood all screwed together from the back, and are suggestive of a bygone era when people still snuggled under home-made crazy quilts. All of this is enhanced by Dave’s process of “oldification” which incorporates sanding and scribbling to give the work the appearance of something old, faded, and probably well-loved (or at least well-used). 

He has written, “All of my work mainly revolves around memory, or at least a form of sarcastic nostalgia.” His paintings “are about taking the viewer somewhere, or moving them along... like how nostalgia ‘takes you back’ (or how narrative moves the reader along). I want a viewer to be able to ‘read’ a piece…[to] recognize elements of a storyline. Why? It’s that moving thing again; [it] encourages the parts of the brain that trigger a nostalgic trip.”

The Surrealists of yesterday turned inward to dreams and the subconscious to find freedom through thought and imagination. Contemporary artists like Dave Barnes (Mark Ryden and Camilla Derrico are others) seem driven, instead, by conflicting external realities, and although his imagery is loaded with strange and poetic contradictions, Dave is, perhaps, not simply a surrealist, but is actually continuing to develop his practice as an illustrator by painting the difficult stories of our difficult world. In doing so, he reveals our contradictions, our fantasies, and our vulnerabilities.

He points, as an example, to the animal shapes he uses, and suggests in his elegantly understated manner, that the way we, as a culture, claim to love animals is directly (and ironically) opposed to our way of living and killing on this planet. What we really love is the adorable cartoons and the mystical creatures of our collective imagination. 

He refers also to the recent and tragic demise of his mother, who struggled for eight years with early-onset Alzheimer’s. She was diagnosed at age 55, just when many Baby Boomers are cashing in their early retirement chips. It’s not an easy topic, clearly, and it’s obvious, in his hesitancy, and in his art, how influenced he has been by the experience.

It all seems so sad for a moment, but just as I’m leaving he becomes suddenly effusive. He throws his arms up into the air, and says, “If you had come here two years ago, you wouldn’t have seen so much work in progress. I’m just so inspired since my son was born!” It was a wonderful moment and not at all surreal. 


Wild Things, a two-person show with Dave Barnes and Jennifer Davis, runs until April 16 at View Art Gallery. 104-860 View Street. See and

Christine Clark is an artist and writer who loves snooping around in other people’s studios.