James Barsness: Icons of Comic Relief

James Barsness I Am Discovered

James Barsness 'I Am Discovered' (detail), 1994, mixed media on paper; 46.4cm x 38.7cm; from the collection of Mickey Cartin, Florida

Drawing on comic strips to explore “crackpot ideas” about social interaction, the Barsness universe recalls the playful chaos of Bruegel. In this catalogue essay from 1997, Thyrza Nichols Goodeve considers drawing and doodling. Full thanks to the author and the gallery for permission to republish

“For all drawing depends, primarily, on your power of representing roundness. If you once do that, all the rest is easy and straight forward; if you cannot do that, nothing else that you may be able to do will be of any use.”

– John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing and the Elements of Perspective (1857)

Drawing for James Barsness is more than the power to represent. It is an activity and a subject, a tradition to mine and a medium of discovery. Approaching each canvas as a kind of two-dimensional laboratory for experimentation, he is a craftsman and a highly seasoned aesthetician. In a style that recalls the mastery of Bruegel laced with the whimsy of turn-of-the-century cartoons, Barsness’s canvases are thick with evocations of a sensorial universe.

As an activity, drawing in the universe of Barsness is ruled neither by the preciousness of the canvas (“I like working on a surface that’s already been screwed up” (1, see footnotes below) nor by false separations between fine art and populist traditions such as the comic strip or caricature. Drawing is as much an elegant, translucent rendering of St. Christopher against a backdrop of the Sunday comics (St. Christopher) as it is the crayon sketches made by his own children and collaged onto the canvas of Allegory of Good Government. With its double nature as both verb and noun, high art and popular form, drawing is his material and palette. (“Even when painting,” he says, “I’m mostly filling in drawings.”) It is for him an action and labor, a process of exertion as well as of discourse. (“I try to hold myself to certain big ideas, but if something wants to go in another direction, I tend to let it go that way.”)

Key to Barsness’s style is the sensation of roundness, what Ruskin noted in his mid-19th-century treatise on drawing as the skill most necessary for an artist to master. Harsh edges, crosshatching, or geometric angles do not characterize Barsness’s canvases so much as a general air of roundness: round shapes, bulbous figures, and, most importantly, the sheer feeling of circular motion. Ruskin privileged “roundness” because it endows a shape with a sense of dimension and weight, of being an object in the world. Barsness indicates an interest in achieving such an effect “in the tactile sensibility that arises from trying to make something look as though it once really existed in space”. But he takes the artistry of drawing into another realm, into fairy tale-infected caricature and cartoon. Wedding Bruegel with R.F. Outcault or Rudolph Dirks – originators of turn-of-the-century comic strips The Yellow Kid and The Katzenjammer Kids, respectively – in such works as L’Economie, Barsness seeks to create a relationship to the canvas that is as much about contact and sensation as it is about the autobiographical scenes, moments from everyday life, portraits, mythic and religious subjects drawn from art history, and tableaus of social commentary that pervade his canvases. In fact, the articulation of such themes may be of less importance than the arousal of a “tactile sensibility”. It is such an awakening of touch that he is really after and why the rounded, bulbous feel of early 20th-century cartoons often crops up in his work. “When you see those cartoons,” he says, “it is as though you can really feel them. The closer I can get to that tactile sensibility, the better.” In his large story-evoking, as opposed to storytelling canvases, The Monster’s Progress, Allegory of Good Government, and In The Neighborhood, the feel of the action of his drawing, the physical presence of scratching on a surface, is most pronounced; here the larger theme of social unrest and conflict is transferred from mere two-dimensional imagery into tactile meditation.

His most political work in the exhibition, Allegory of Good Government, is Barsness’s statement on the luckless structure of government. The canvas is saturated with a thick layering of paired oppositional creatures that dance upon the surface in a cacophony of elements at odds with one another. The paired images are borrowed from folk culture, e.g., salt and pepper shakers, cats and dogs, a lion and a mouse, and redesigned into nightmarish yet amusing symbols of paradox and aggression. Yet while the rendering of gnomelike comical oppositions is powerful and frenetic in and of itself, the effect of chaos issues as much from his “destructive method” as from his virtuoso odes to Bosch and Bruegel’s folk iconography.

Barsness The Allegory of Good Government

James Barsness 'The Allegory of Good Government' (detail), 1995, acrylic, ink, ballpoint pen, gold leaf, and newsprint on canvas; 214.0cm x 183.5cm

Barsness does not do preliminary drawings. What you see is both practice mat and finished form. In other words, he resolves the various permutations of his studies on the very canvas upon which he is working. When a stroke or form appears that he does not like, he erases or sands through it rather than beginning anew on a fresh piece of canvas: “The whole idea is to get through all these different permutations until you get to the most attractive”. As a result, his canvases resonate not just with the themes that interest him but with the very act of making the drawing itself. And here we come to a central attribute of Barsness’s aesthetic. His is a version of obsessive drawing developed from the most debased or at least most underregarded modality of drawing – the doodle. By definition, doodling is the process, not the completion of a work. In this sense, it is the perennial abandoned stepchild of all modes of drawing, whether one is doodling in preparation for a comic strip, a portrait, or a Renaissance study. In itself it is not considered a focused or serious activity, for one doodles while in a state of preparation or absent-minded inattention. One does not spend the day working on one’s “doodling”, for instance.

Doodling, then, is best understood as the art of distraction or of the distracted, a mode that might trouble some but which Barsness puts to work as the very basis on his technique. “I’m too distractible for the kind of complete narrative storytelling of, say, a novelist,” he explains of his tendency to build fragments into thematic structures but never completed stories. For instance, three works in this exhibition belong to his “Little Monarch” series: I Am Discovered, The Good Citizen, and The Boy King. The whole series, of which there are only seven finished pieces, is based on the idea of a boy monarch “involved in all these fragments of stories”. I Am Discovered celebrates the moment of his birth, The Boy King shows him wrestling, and The Good Citizen depicts him “rather like George Washington”, confessing to having burned his house down. Nothing in these images suggests or necessitates that they be linked to one another; their derivation from the “Little Monarch” series is utterly beside the point for Barsness. They evolve from the fragment of an idea, filled out via a process of distraction, doodling taken into the realm of the finished work of art.

Familiarity with Bruegel’s method is helpful in uncovering the symbology of Barsness’s work, for he, like Bruegel, constructs a cartoonish lexicon out of the visualization of proverbs. For example, Bruegel’s painting The Blue Cloak (1559) is made up of scenes true to the tenor of 16th-century Flemish everyday life while simultaneously illustrating a variety of Netherlandish proverbs. Similarly, Barsness explains the image of the burning boot in The Good Citizen: “In Mother Goose, the boot is the symbol of home. So, I use that symbol every once in a while. You see the boy monarch is burning his house (boot) down in this scene”. Such symbolization makes a kind of language out of the culturally encoded doodles both artists draw upon from fairy tales, proverbs and nursery rhymes.

The art of refined doodling is also central to a founding moment in Barsness’s development as an artist – when, in the sixth grade, he entered a “Draw Winkey” contest. Sponsored by the Famous Artists Institute in Minneapolis, advertised on matchbook covers or in comic books, the contest invited children to “Draw Winkey” (a lumberjack or baby deer). Barsness’s rendition of Winkey won him a $300 scholarship toward the $600 tuition for the Famous Artists Institute correspondence school. But after a representative of the school appeared at the Barsness family home drunk (“I’d never smelled anyone like that before”), his parents decided against investing the $300 balance. Nonetheless, the experience was pivotal for Barsness who recounts it tongue-in-cheek as signifying something notable about his relationship to art.

Barsness’s affection for “Draw Winkey” and its role in the formation of his artistic identity, is representative of his attachment to popular tradition where doodling invades the world of fine art. From the monumental The Monster’s Progress, St. Christopher, or the more colloquial Boy On Horse or L’Economie, a pop-culture “Draw Winkie” glee suffuses and mixes with the studied artistry of his conceptions. The Monster’s Progress, made after the Los Angeles riots in 1992, privileges giant Bruegelesque figures amid a rolling landscape of cartoon antics. As in many of his pieces, comic strips provide a background on which his impish, in-motion characters scoot about. Figures in duress beat one another with spoons; or an oversized diaper pin. Others race at one another, one with a shopping cart, while another disappears over the edge of a hill, clutching the prize of a gift-wrapped package in hand. It is a study of social chaos where looting and urban riot are drawn into a scene part fairy tale, part nightmare, laced with the rectitude and whimsy of doodling.

A quite literal act of doodling served as the genesis of The Little Bible. Barsness had given himself the assignment to draw on the pages of various books he was either reading at the time, Lucy Lippard’s collected essays on Minimalism, for instance, or discovered by accident in the trash, such as the portable Little Bible, until their original texts were layered with his own images. Commuting via subway to a job in Greenwich Village from his home in Brooklyn, Barsness spent the time sketching and drawing people he saw until all of the pages of the Bible were covered. He then placed these pages, produced in the interstices of everyday life, into a grid, framed with gold leaf. The impromptu act of sketching, in transit, from everyday faces around him became a kind of monumental elegy on the human face, gold and all. Exaltation meets the common and the base. In many ways, this could be the best way to summarize Barsness’s work, which is always about mussing up the sacred truths of society and art history as, for instance, the legendary nude Lady Godiva (Godiva) gallops heroically out against a sea of cartoons?!?

The humor and tension produced by pairing the colloquial – doodling, comic strips, children’s drawings, and scenes of everyday life – and the monumental – references to art history, lives of saints, and exalted themes and materials – are a characteristic of Barsness’s aesthetic that Bill Berkson calls to our attention in reference to the artist’s signature use of ball-point pen: “[B]allpoint ink oxidizes,” Berkson notes, “leaving an iridescence like that of a grease puddle on a dirt road, a deep dazzle. If the blue ink slides up to gold leaf in a sweet reprise of 14th-century spiritual glamour, it’s no accident. Barsness is after exactly that passage from one human affirmation to the next.” (2) At once playful and earnest, informal and polished, the pieces on view in Icons of Comic Relief demonstrate just such a “passage from one human affirmation to the next”. Utterly without pretension and with a skill as refined as the 14th-century “spiritual glamour” his work can sometimes reflect, Barsness is both trickster and master of the art of drawing. As much the courtly cartoon jester of his canvases as the boy monarch, he is not “hick” (3) but the arbiter of a contemporary version of disegno, Leonardo da Vinci’s notion of drawing as both deity and science, where the scratch of a pen materializes at once into spirit and sensation to create icons of culture and agents of comic relief.


  1. James Barsness in a telephone interview with the author, January 1997. Subsequent quotations from the artist are also from this conversation.
  2. Bill Berkson, “Jim Barsness [at] Susan Cummings Gallery”, Artforum 19:2 (October 1990), 176.
  3. Asked what tradition he placed himself in, Barsness said, “My wife says I’m a humanist which is kind of nice but is also an insult. I like to think of myself as a populist”. He pauses and laughs, “Even if that does make me a hick”.

James Barsness: Icons of Comic Relief (February 9-April 27, 1997) was curated by John Michael Kohler Arts Center curator Andrea Inselmann. JMKAC acknowledges with gratitude The George Adams Gallery and James Barsness for making this exhibition possible. JMKAC also expresses its deep appreciation to the 175 corporations and foundations and over 1,350 families providing the ongoing support of the program and operations. Our profound thanks go to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wisconsin Arts Board for their vital funding for this project.

John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 608 New York Avenue, PO Box 480, Sheboygan, Wisconsin 53082-0489

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