Thursday, December 8, 2011

Words trace bullets in Nick Barbee's CATO

by Dean Liscum

Before the opening at Rice's Sewell Hall of CATO by Nick Barbee, the artist gave a talk. As artist talks go, it was par for the course. He talked about his journey as an artist. How he got interested in historical figures. How he did multiple portraits of George Washington. How his interest in historical figures lead to historical re-enactments and research. How his research lead him to the play Cato, a Tragedy. How the violence in the play made him think about gun violence. How his thoughts on gun violence lead him to research the trajectory of bullets through a synthetic substance that simulated anesthetized pig flesh, which is the closest thing to human flesh. How the diagrams of these trajectories led him to create the sculptures in CATO.

And then at the end of the talk, he did something extremely disingenuous. He said, "none of this (talk) matters."

But when I look at these sculptures, which are scaled models of the effect of a bullet fired from guns such as an AK-47 or an M-16 or a shotgun, I think how can Barbee's talk not matter.

If Barbee's purpose is to abstract violence (in this case gun violence) by stripping away details--in this case the body--and presenting only the violence--in this case the trajectory of the bullet through the body, that is the wound, then he may have succeeded. However, I lack the experience (thankfully having never been shot by an assault rifle) to intuitively, viscerally "get" his work. By dismissing his context, Barbee relegates his work to a form of abstraction in which one strips away the details to get to the essence of an object, its platonic forms. That worked for Cezanne, Picasso, Braque and others because they attempted to abstract common objects and experiences familiar to their audience.

Barbee's subject limits the audience's experience of these works in that same intuitive manner. Unless it is being shown at Walter Reed Hospital rather than Sewell Hall.

Sometimes words make all the difference.



  1. When I see these, I think of Brancusi's Bird in Space sculptures. Sure Brancusi wasn't sculpting the path of a bullet through a human body. However, Borges wrote that every artist creates his own precursors. Looking at these sculptures, and understanding Barbee's path to them, can give us a subtly different understanding of Brancusi's birds.

  2. I don't believe Art is about 'to alienate', that is-- not in the purest sense of the expression. I'm sure some would disagree. When I heard the concluding remark "none of this (talk) matters" I felt awfully disjointed. I'm not saying it's awful to be disjointed. Listening to a talk that brings on a (un)comfortable, strange turbulence that provokes and evokes all sorts of ideals, intrigue, connections, and other types of vibrations, can ultimately breathe real interest. I mean disjointed as having been removed. Perhaps if I had just only looked at the sculptures and not listened to the talk, and thereby attempt to understand "Barbee's path to them" (that is, keep telling myself over and over that none of what he just said for forty minutes matters) I too would have seen Brancusi's Bird in Space that night. Better late than never.