According to Phillips Gallery director Meri DeCaria, their current featured artist Heather Barron has been the gallery’s best-seller this past year. What is it, then, about these stylized paintings of flatly rendered female figures that attracts such a large audience?
Barron’s compositions range from lone angelic figures to mother and child scenes to more symbolic narrative compositions. Barron’s paintings, always of female figures, are easily recognizable. Their features are repetitively similar: rounded faces, almond eyes, pursed red lips, and never-ending skin surfaces of creamy yellow. What differentiates one painting from the next is not the individual in the painting, but accents on the model. Every item in a woman’s wardrobe can be found interspersed multiple times, in multiple variations with multiple vivid colors and patterns. This variation is further accented by changes in the color of hair, which can range from angelic blond to more vixonesque dreadlocks of chestnut brown.
Is it these accessories that attract, then, rather than the individual figures, with their vacant stares? It may be a masculine bias, or my personal desire to find profundity in art, but in their cotton-candy hues, these paintings feel far too quaint, feminine, fragile, playful, charming, and whimsical. They are more iconic than they are individualistic: well-articulated, doll-like caricatures ornately garnished.
Barron is not the only one working in this genre. Cassandra Barney, Melissa Peck, and, to a lesser extent, Brian Kershisnik (another best-selling Utah artist) all like to paint heavily decorated, flattened figures coated in varying veneers of sugar.
Perhaps people are drawn to these images because they are indeed visually stimulating. The bright colors, round eyes and heart shaped lips have lucid visual appeal, and when looked at individually, these might seem an ideal piece of wall candy. Seen as a whole, though, they lose their charm, like eating a bag full of candy instead of a single piece.
Phillips Gallery has a long history of putting on strong shows, but this one is too sweet to savor. As decoration Barron’s paintings may serve a good enough purpose, but there is little beyond decoration for an audience to attach themselves to here. Since it is the public that has given these doll-like figures top status, there is reason to fear that in our best-selling art we’ll ever be able to find the type of substance one hopes for.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.