Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Sweetness Sells: Heather Barron at Phillips Gallery

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.

4 replies »

  1. Ehren Clark’s observations regarding the sweetness of Heather Barron’s work are true. What is equally important to point out is that while content plays a major role in the appeal of a work of art, many other factors have significant impact when it comes to attraction. For 46 years Phillips Gallery has carried a broad spectrum of fine art from our community. In that time we have seen many rise and fall in popularity. Of considerable influence in this tightly knit neighborhood is the fact that people enjoy knowing artists. Personality and attitude are powerful elements that contribute to their popularity. Artwork is an extension of the creator, it reveals a bit of one’s soul, and through that phenomenon connections are made with collectors. We are continually engaged by the person behind the tool (brush/camera/chisel) and muse about what life experience might have taken place to influence such work. In the end we want to connect in some way. Whether intellectual, humorous, dark or frivolous, art appeals to people for a variety of reasons and there is room for all. Van Gogh is certainly a fine example of what beauty madness can reap. Though his paintings simply depict his surroundings, they are the subject of universal speculation. They emote. They tantalize the viewer and instill a visceral reaction. We are fueled by the phrase “to each his own” as it applies to this business.

    The charming character of Heather Barron’s figure paintings shows her compassion for humankind, it is what makes them disarming, likeable and non-confrontational. Our current climate of flux may be exactly the reason why she is so coveted at the moment.

    Dialogue about art is always a good thing, we thank 15 Bytes for bringing that to Utah and we welcome further discussion.

  2. Can we respect merit and craft above networks and circuits? We should love what we collect, but it shows integrity to me to invest in a painting that is well crafted, skillfully polished and reaching for understanding in a pure and humble sense. I love to see painters that “rise to visibility” because they put in the time day in and day out and not because they know somebody. Charisma is charming, sweetness is lovely, intellect is stimulating—but can the work stand alone with out the promotion? Would you be drawn to a work of art and see the artist through the merits of the painting? Or is that old fashioned?

    Chances are you wouldn’t have enjoyed the company of Van Gogh. His temperment was eratic and highly passionate. Perhaps he would have even made you uncomfortable. He probably wouldn’t have been in your circle or clique. Now, posthumuously, he is revered–removed from his existence?

    An original piece of art in my mind should move the soul a little and have a deep lasting connection. It ought to have a voice above all and admired for it’s eloquence (which is the craft) in expressing that voice.

    Be serene. Slap a smile on that face. Sugar coat it. Do not get angry or irrational. Be professional.Be loved. Be charming. Cut it out.

  3. I want to compliment my friend Ehren Clark for having the audacity to question the avalanche of taste (the only way taste seems to move any more) that has made Heather Barron one of the best-selling painters on the local scene. We need more of his independence and courage in our state. At the same time, I have to take issue with one of his points, at least rhetorically. He says, “These painting feel far too quaint, feminine, fragile, playful, charming, and whimsical.” I would reply that the presence of these qualities is not a fault: in fact, if an artist can achieve a convincing likeness to truth, and while doing so evoke any quality familiar enough to have a name, it is an accomplishment. My problem with Barron is not what qualities she finds in the content that emerges from her subject matter. My problem is with her apparent failure to find any content in it at all. Strip away the qualities Clark deplores and what is left? I fear a blank image, on which the viewer is free to project anything desired. These are like the images in advertisements, pregnant with nothing in particular, in which consumers are encouraged to find whatever individual fulfillment their dreams require.

    Mari Decaria responds with an eloquent defense of the aesthetic discourse in which art dwells. Her words should be engraved over the entry to every art venue. “Keep your mind as open as your eye:” might be a more direct way of stating her declaration of independence for art. She argues cogently for her faith, and I’ve never come away from a conversation with Phillip’s staff feeling my time was not well spent. I think Ehren Clark would agree with her in principle, not least because she would no more censure his right to voice an opinion than Heather Barron’s right to show her work.

    I don’t mean to slight Jeffrey Hale, but I haven’t a clue what he means me to conclude from his remarks. Perhaps he will try again, as Heather Barron must at her easel, and Ehren Clark does at his desk.

  4. Geoff,
    I must write briefly in defense of my friend whom you do not have the pleasure of knowing as I do, Jeffrey Hale, who writes as expressively as he paints. Unlike DeCaria, an administrator, myself, a professional writer, and yourself, an academic, Hale is a gifted artist. His means of conveying his craft are very expressive that, now that I read his writing, I see as one step father towards authenticity as his writing is so expressively charged. Understanding Hale, I appreciate what he is saying, which is his manner of asking how are we to judge an artist and as an essential factor in this how is their character to play a part in this? Sadly, Geoff, you have given Hale the answer he was hoping not to find in your casting him so curtly and abruptly aside. My respects to all who have voiced themselves in their own unique manner in this forum.

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