The masterfully crafted oil paintings of Crystal Barbre seem the work of a mature and established artist, but in fact Barbre is still young and in the midst of developing her distinct, bold style. She puts many hours into her work daily, and one marvels to think how her work will develop in years to come. She is thorough, thoughtful and extremely observant, but Barbre is also bubbly and gregarious . She has an adorably scratchy voice, and within five minutes of talking with her I felt I had known her for years. She’s just like that.
In her studio is a sixteen foot long canvas, a journey of a piece upon which she has only recently embarked. Inspired by a biblical tale, she is working on the first few layers on the main characters of the piece. The rest is sketched out in pencil. This type of painting—which she is doing more and more—is polished and romantic, but with a level of quiet and humble reserve.
Her paintings have had a range of effects on me. Sometimes they make me hopeful, and other times they make me feel guilty, like an accomplice to something illicit. Often, they make me feel like a witness
—a witness to my own silent jury —reminded of a secret one doesn’t necessarily want to remember. Yet, the presentation of these sentiments has evolved in a way that makes the voices less shrill. The paintings not only offer glimpses into her psyche, but also force a confrontation and realization of universally experienced things: the shortcomings of morality and luck, the battered beauty in all things.
“I have a classical realist background, but my style is way more expressive than something you would usually find, as far as the colors and the way the brushstrokes are kind of messy. This [particular] painting is classical realism and the center still life will be like a Dutch master still life, where it’s very tight, lots of glazing, lots of depth. A lot of those still lifes are about degradation and decay. They are dark and beautiful at the same time. You think ‘Oh look at these beautiful flowers’ and yet there are all these bugs and spiders and dead leaves in there. I used to do paintings that were gory and shocking to people, which I like, and I don’t want to go away from that, but at the same time it shut people off so they couldn‘t look at it and see it. I want to change things to have that more implied feeling and mood.”
“I’m too risqué for the classical realist world, but then I’m too classical realist for the pop surrealism and contemporary art. I’m stuck in this weird middle ground which is exciting because there aren’t a lot of people there, and a few artists that I have looked to are doing really well, like Jeremy Geddes, Chris Berens, Martin Wittfooth and Josh Keyes.”
The large piece she is working on in her studio is based on the biblical tale of Apostle Thomas, dubbed Doubting Thomas for his refusal to believe that the other ten apostles had seen Jesus resurrected until he could feel Jesus’ wounds himself. Caravaggio painted this scene around 1601, titling it “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.” This painting resonated deeply with Barbre, who found the symbolism relatable to a major event from her past.
“This painting started out because I was raped quite a few years ago. After was the long and drawn out process of trying to go through the legal system and trying to deal with it in the justice system. It’s something that has happened before, and I grew up being abused, and this was the first time I had actually stood up for myself about it. It was horrifying, worse than the actual rape because of the way people doubted. Everything was about my character. I was petrified in a place that I thought was supposed to have my best interests at heart. There was a lot of symbolism between that and the story of complete doubt and Jesus’ rebirth. Jesus was brought back from the dead and it was me trying to hold onto being a different person and that doubt and going through the wounds of that. Somebody poking at something that was basically a death of self. And I’m still not exactly sure what the entire painting is but it’s starting to become clear, everything in the scene will eventually start to make sense.”
“With these paintings, the part that takes the longest is the research. I put a really long time into finding reference photos and putting stuff together and the composition and the feeling of the piece. So much of it is totally undefined, I have no idea about it at all, it’s just a feeling, and feeling like different images should go together for whatever reason. I have learned to trust it. The story starts to make sense. It’s usually not until the end of the painting that I know what it’s about, and it’s always something I never felt I could have made up. I grew up really religious, so a lot of those biblical stories hold symbolism for me. Revisiting them and trying to figure out how they apply in contemporary times. Most people aren’t familiar with them, but they still have a lot of subconscious symbolism for people.”
“Art is not usually something that people feel like they own, but they should. That’s why I love doing public murals where people feel like they own it in their space. If it’s in a gallery then people often say ‘Oh, I don’t know anything about art.’ Yes, you do! You get to decide what you like, but it’s become this thing that’s very cut off from normal people, and it didn’t used to be that. Caravaggio and Michelangelo painted in churches and it was for people who couldn’t read Latin. They couldn’t read so they needed to know what the stories were. It was for people that were the lesser. And to have people now not realize that it’s something they should own, and have an opinion about, is one other thing that I am trying to figure out. I want to bring it to people who don’t feel like they can have it.”
Barbre is most known for her work with animals. The series of work that first gained attention featured women, mostly naked, with the heads of a wild animals in place of their own. Often the women were coupled with men in coital, lusty positions. Otherwise, they were standing provocatively on their own.
Barbre gives her women a power that cannot be conned—the strength of a wild being. An owl, a deer, a gazelle, a lion, a tiger, a giraffe: These animals will attack, and they operate outside of the sway and circumstance by which we abide. An animal is not a judge; it is an actor, running on instinct, its decisions made to satisfy a basic hierarchy of needs. To give a woman an animal head is an interesting way of making her unpersuadable, beyond domination. She is neutralized of the emotions that make her vulnerable in the way real women are. She is action and reaction. Often these women are in sexual positions, receiving oral sex, or having sex, vaginal or anal, in which case they are on top. The women are fertile, healthy, beautiful. They have desirable, full bodies, and the expressions on their faces are often assertive if not threatening, twisted into a snarl or a howl, warning off ill-wishers.
“Those are anthropomorphic: animal magnatisma, or animal magnetism. Those were from when I finished at Gage. The first series had a lot of thought process as to why I worked at porn stores for years. The idea of women being strong in porn is something a lot of people don’t realize. Women’s sexuality being something that’s acceptable is something, I thought, especially in a place like Seattle, wouldn’t be a big deal. Apparently it’s something that was really shocking to people. That’s why all the animal heads are on women, and, they are always in really aggressive poses. It’s them having a good time, not usually in something that’s going to be degrading.
“[This series] was trying to figure out as a woman how to have power. I grew up without any, and with sexuality being something that was not my own. It belonged to a man; it belonged to God; it belonged to anybody else except me. Then coming to civilization, but it was still the same thing. Women are super sexualized, in media and marketing, and you’re supposed to be super free with your sexuality, but then…if that was true why could I not paint those paintings without people freaking out? And then, in trying to be a strong woman, do you use your sexuality or not? I do. I know every female artist pretty much does. That’s a big part of it, you’re going to get whatever you can, however you can. And part of that is using your sexuality. Men do too in a different way. I think there is a different between saying ‘I wish things weren’t that way’ and also examining how they are, and how we are actually going to deal with it instead of saying it’s not an issue. Continuing to put sexualized images in the work is a way to be a little bit angry that it is something I am supposed to cover up, but also trying to figure it out on my own.”
These pieces are so tensely moving. The lighting is cinematic. The subjects often lit like they are on stage. The backgrounds are fuzzy and faded, bringing all the attention to the figures involved. The composition varies. For the paintings it is generally straight on, but her sketches often have an asymmetrical composition that makes them almost storybook with a more intimate feel.
Her work still contains a lot of the same elements: women, sex and power, only presented in a different, more nuanced way. She continues to evolve in sophistication concerning these topics, and the parallels run through all of her work, creating an intricate dialogue concerning her own history and also our cultural history of identity, abuse and domination.
Another series of pencil and charcoal sketches feature children and animals. Again, the animals have a threatening stance, often standing over the child protectively: an opossum, a dog, a cat, an elk, a deer, a lamb. The children appear vulnerable, skittish or upset. An opossum perches on the crutch of one child. Two dogs fight behind a plump child. Girls run with their ears covered, mouths open mid-scream, while enormous moths circling a light above. Elementally, the sketches have an architectural bent as the shapes of the children and animals are square, blocky, and completed with very select and spare shading. Many times, if the subject is looking out toward the viewer, their eyes are obscured. In some cases the animals seem parental if not totemic, instinctively comforting and protecting the human counterparts or at least bearing witness to what they have endured, but the true nature is always ambiguous.
“Painting started out as cathartic, and one of the lessons I had to learn was how to make it not just art therapy. I have a responsibility as an artist to try to make people feel like there is a connection. It starts from a place of a personal story or something that is painful for me to work out, or I am upset about. I don’t really paint stuff that is particularly happy. The ones that I do love are very painful. And I don’t know how it’s gotten more painful, maybe as you progress as an artist you’re getting to some place that’s very raw and you have the technical skills to be more automatic and so you are able to get a little bit deeper, but that’s become something that’s become really hard too.”
Barbre’s approach to painting is similar to how a novelist writes a book. She establishes a scene and the characters but does not know where the scene is going until after she has begun her work. It comes together, in form and meaning, as she manifests it, stroke by stroke. Novelists often have characters and a general idea of where they are taking things, but it is not until they begin letting the characters move that everything starts to make sense and settle into place and the writer begins to know what decisions those characters would make. Given the poetic amplitude of her work, Barbre is as much a storyteller as she is a painter. A platinum Nabokov with a brush, she speaks through lush visual prose. The objects she uses are ripe with innuendo and symbolism. Everything beautiful, everything more than what it appears to be.
“Every artist has a different reason to paint. I just always wanted to tell a story. Whether or not everybody sees the same story is not necessarily important, but it’s the content and the symbolism. That’s why I spend so much time trying to find the right symbol. I try to find the balance between doing a painting that is technically good and sticking to the story. Sometimes you have to give up parts of it. Editing is rough, you want to put all the things into the painting but sometimes you can’t.”
“I’ve always wanted to paint like Bouguereau. Super clean, super realist. Or Lucian Freud. But the painting is going to be what the painting is going to be. There are skill sets I need to focus on, and practice until I have it under my belt.
“One of the best tools that I ever used to learn was doing master copies. Trying to take somebody’s work and copy it exactly. It is hard and frustrating and it makes you realize how many skill sets you don’t have, but that will teach you how to do it. There’s a danger in being complacent about what you do. You need to be able to do other things, or at least know you can do it. You shouldn’t not be doing it because you can’t. Learn it, understand it, then you can give it up or mess with it as much as you want.”
“With school, when I really started researching it, I realized most weren’t teaching the things I needed to learn. I didn’t need them to tell me what story to tell, I needed them to tell me how to paint. And there are very few places like that. I was really lucky that there’s one in Seattle, Gage. I don’t understand a reaction against those skill sets. Once you have it, you can break it.”
“The beginning part is the hardest. I wish I could just paint for a few hours but I have to have the whole day to do it, it’s about getting connected to it. It’s about focus. The focus takes every little bit to get into it. I have to have my pack of cigarettes, a pot of coffee, and like five Rockstars in the fridge, and just get worked up. I set up the palette, set up the brushes, drink a cup of coffee, have a cigarette, drink another cup of coffee, staring at the reference photos, then get at it. I have to play the same record on over and over. Then, painting into the witching hour.”
Visit Barbre’s Web site to see more work: crystalbarbre.wordpress.com
Editor’s Note (June 28, 2014, 11:07 PST): An earlier version of this article replaced the final version due to a publishing error. While the factual content of the article was not affected, significant changes were made to the opening paragraphs. We apologize for the confusion. T.s.F.