The Drawings of Barry Nemett: Moving Air Vapor
At best, when I’m drawing clouds, I feel like I’m moving air vapor around, not just moving my pencil.
– Barry Nemett on his work “View from Montecastello”
I first met Barry when we both taught together several years ago. We had many conversations over the course of the semester and have since gotten to know each other well. While teaching, I was affected by his sincere interest in what his students were making, what they were thinking about, and how his own experiences could give them some insight into how and why someone makes art. His passion was contagious, his students were excited to work with him, and his colleagues, myself included, fed off of his excitement. What I’ve always loved the most, though, is the way Barry’s mind fluidly moves a conversation in fruitfully diverse directions. When you speak with him, he naturally connects what you’re saying to topics that pop into his mind, recalling his own experiences, always looking for ways to connect them to yours. It’s easy to get pulled into Barry’s world, which is rich with sensory experience and genuine excitement about what living things look and feel like.
Barry’s own artworks embody this quality completely. He understands the world through his art. The immediacy of this integral process is most apparent in his drawings and works on paper. In these, Barry immerses himself in the spaces he draws in an attempt to understand them sensorially. He places himself thoroughly in the present via the landscape, without any idea of what might changes might affect him as he works. He feels the wind, temperature, humidity, and translates these sensations into his drawings. About this process, Barry says, “As a landscape painter, for me, it’s not just what the place looks like. The smells, sounds of birds, wind, weather . . . lots of things play a role in what I try to portray.” Sight becomes the key sense in Barry’s artworks, but only as a means of describing through the eyes what it feels like to be a part of the landscape. In his work, Barry is not simply a passive observer or recorder, but places himself within the spaces that he draws in an attempt to understand them, through drawing.
Barry’s mind is intensely curious, and he often (out of his own intention or because of other factors) leaves drawings ‘unfinished’ on site, and then revisits them later, continuing the panoramic views in new spaces, or via his memory or imagination. Maybe he feels like he’s gotten enough of the drawing completed to convey what he saw and felt, or maybe he’s late for a lunch meeting. Whatever pulls him away from a drawing, Barry embraces the unpredictability of this process as it arises, never forcing a situation to yield to his will. He simply moves on and continues the drawing later. About this process, Barry says, “I often revisit the same site. How often I return to begin a brand new drawing or painting depends on how much I like the place. Each time I return I add and delete details. The site’s always different, and I’m always different, so it’s not surprising that my drawings or paintings of the same initial location are different. Often, the details that I add are observed at various locations (they may be miles — or even countries apart), but I try to weave them together so that the overall image is believable as one place. When there’s a visual break in the continuity, I rather like it. My process is additive in nature. I like that, too, because of the freedom it offers.” In this sense, his drawings tell a story – of where Barry has travelled, what a tree or leaf or blade of grass made him think of, be it another location or a story he’d read or written, or a reference to another work of art, etc. His drawings are hybrids of space – the physical spaces he’s immersed himself in and the mental spaces of Barry’s imagination.
This fluidity is evident within Barry’s large, often vertical panoramic drawings, and equally in his accordion-like sketchbooks. These books unfurl horizontally as each drawing connects to the next, reflecting how Barry saw his spaces laterally, from one page to the next. Within the large drawings, in which smaller pieces of paper are attached to each other into cohesive wholes, Barry’s works evolve into grand, romantic panoramas, while his smaller drawings and sketchbooks, which are littered with snippets of text and more loosely drawing bits of what he has seen, reveal his process more simply.
Barry’s large works have a finish that is entirely intentional. They look complete, real, believable as cohesive places. In these, Barry closes the visual loop between the real and the imagined / remembered, completing his drawings and paintings in the way a writer might complete a fairy tale or poem. They are whole.
Barry is also a writer of fiction, poetry, and art criticism. His most recent artworks grapple with the dynamic between language and image in new ways. Of this, Barry says, “In Songs Barking to the Sun, what was important to me was the story or narrative of the trees. The rhythms and weavings running throughout the unfolding panels are an integral part of telling that story. Of course, the text I created to help the narrative unfold also mattered, as did the rhythms and weavings of the letters and words that I incorporated into this unfolding book. By the way, my handwriting is terrible. But I don’t worry about legibility because whenever I exhibit my work I print out the texts.” Barry’s use of letters and words initially trigger our desire to decode or to read. Yet as we look at his words and letters, they slowly transform into shapes, lines, and forms. We see them as fragments of thoughts or even as visual elements of the landscape or portraits. These works are exciting in their attempts to more literally bridge what Barry thinks and what he sees – the observed and the thought. They also reveal an artist who never seems content with what he knows. Barry is always searching for the new in his work, the destabilizing, the uncertain and the unknown.
For me, Barry’s works – his drawings, paintings and writings – bridge the vivid descriptiveness of nature’s mundane details as seen in V.S. Naipaul’s “Jack’s Garden”, with the grand views of the Hudson River painter Jasper Francis Crospey, into spaces that undulate like the paper scrolls of the Chinese painter Wang Meng. Barry’s works, as a whole, reflect his personality, love of nature, people, literature, and, more immediately, of looking. Barry digs deeply into the natural world, and his work’s beautiful finish and astounding detail reveal an artist who sees nature as a force to be witnessed, observed, glorified and admired. If not ever fully understood.
* See More of Barry Nemett’s Work at below and at his website, www.barrynemett.com.