Shape of a memory
Chico State art student’s senior exhibition works through pain of loss by exploring friendships
The harshest winter finds in us an invincible spring—Albert Camus
“Some people see a lot of sadness in my work and in the theme, but I don’t see it that way at all,” said Rick Barnett, wunderkind behind the mixed-media exhibit, Even Cancer Needs a Home: An Experimental Study in Friendship Through the Progression of the Mentally Ill, showing at the Laxson Fine Arts Gallery at Chico State in October.
“I see it as more of a triumph over sadness.”
Though the underlying theme is friendship, Barnett’s impetus for the work was the grief he felt over the tragic passing of his close friend, 27-year-old local artist and musician Paul Harper, in February.
“I went through that couple of weeks where I didn’t know what was going on. I was just in a state of shock,” said Barnett, a Chico State senior pursuing a bachelor of fine arts degree. “I realized that when I looked back on his passing I didn’t want it to remind me of being sad, so I decided to transpose that sadness into making something to represent his memory.”
Beginning in late spring, through the summer and up until now, Barnett worked through his grief and experienced the most productive era of his artistic career thus far. Using and often mixing ceramics, painting, carpentry, woodcarving, drawing and collage, he assembled a broad but thematically bonded exhibit of large ceramic installments, paintings, drawings and dozens of smaller works.
Barnett is also a musician who has worked on several projects with Harper and other members of the Redding-Chico musical syndicate the Around Town Collective, and who formerly fronted the band Last Workhorse. The music he pens tends to lean toward the dark and rustic, as does his visual art.
Birds are a recurrent theme, as are dusty, barren landscapes, burning cigarettes, acoustic instruments and creepy log cabins. There are recurrent characters, most notably a man with a bird’s skull for a head. Also present are some dark humor and a touch of old-time religion, particularly in some of the pieces’ titles, which are largely gleaned from inside jokes, anecdotes and songs.
For example, a painting of a man dying on a horse with an arrow through him connected by plumes of smoke to a man listening to a record player and smoking a cigarette is called “As Ambassadors of God it is Our Duty to Reconcile You With Christ.”
“It’s a Bible verse my mom used to text me all the time,” Barnett said. “Paul also grew up in an extremely religious family, and we both grew up with the same issues of not really fitting into that, so I felt it was appropriate.”
Another piece is named in part after an instrumental song from the band Galapaghosts, which Harper started shortly before his death and of which Barnett was a member. It’s called, “God and I fighting at Paul’s Tomb.”
Other pieces are not as heavily themed, and not every piece revolves around Harper: “Elliot [Maldonado, another friend and fellow musician] has a fake book he wrote called Diary of a Dead Horse, so I made a ceramic book, and on the cover it says, ‘Diary of a Dead Horse, By Elliot Maldonado.’”
Barnett said he plans to keep working with the theme of friendship for future projects. “The things I know the best are myself and my relationships with people, so most of my work is based on that connection.”
And, of course, memories and the life experiences that create them. Asked if the pieces reflect specific moments in time, Barnett paused a second before answering. “Well, certain instances might have been in my brain while I was working on certain pieces, but it’s not like they represent a specific moment or story. It’s more like the piece becomes the memory.”