Essay – Richard Ormond CBE, Former Deputy Director of the National Gallery,
Charlie Barton – Spellbound
CHARLIE BARTON’S moons have an arresting, spell-binding impact. They loom out of dark space with coruscating surface textures and vibrant, saturated colours, powerful, brooding presences. Composed very simply, a circle within a square, they come in a range of sizes, most commonly 170 or 130cm. The background is plain black and this acts as a foil to the shimmering, densely painted orbs. Instead of astronomical imagery, we are given moons that speak to the imagination and the emotions. What drew the artist to this and other cosmic subjects was their expression of primal energy, the flux and turbulence that embraces natural phenomena. Like everything else in the Universe we are the product of cosmic explosions and star dust.
Charlie Barton came to art as a mature student after a stint in the film industry. She trained at the Kingston Art School from 1997 to2001, where she learned her trade but found little encouragement for the subjects that entranced her. The death of her father in 2000 led her to speculate on the origins of life and the nature of matter. It also led her to Eastern philosophies as she sought to reconcile the physical world with the life of the spirit. A sense of the spiritual informs all of her work. Her father had been an expert navigator who sailed round-the-world yacht races, and his descriptions of the night sky inspired in his daughter an awe of the planets and galaxies. An expert horsewoman, she remembers riding across Salisbury Plain where the desolate, cratered landscape seemed to her just like the surface of the moon. Wiltshire born and bred, she has imbibed the spirit of its ancient landscape with windswept downs, hill forts and burial mounds. Post-studentship and faced with the death of her father, Charlie Barton struck out on her own line. She was inspired both by the elemental forces of the Universe and by the transience and frailty of human life. She sought to reconcile the two by painting one sequence of pictures of red-hot or ice-cold matter pulsating with energy, and another of decomposing skulls. Intense colour in the first sequence is allied to liquid textures of explosive force streaming through backgrounds of black and blue and orange. The skulls, seen from below, heads upturned, neck muscles stretched, possess a macabre, demonic air. With bared teeth and staring white eye sockets they are anything but comforting. The artist was seeking, in her own words, ‘the essence of life i.e. what determines life from death? Tangentially this led me into the Cosmos Series where I was seduced by the ethereal beauty of the celestial bodies’.
Charlie Barton found her feet in 2004 when she painted her first moon picture and she has remained faithful to her subject. She has varied her menu by sometime substituting the moon for Venus, Mercury and other planets, painted in a similar style but in a different range of textures and colours. In a sequence of works named ‘Terrae’ circles have disappeared to be replaced by squares and rectangles. Scarred, ancient-feeling, unearthly surfaces are peppered with splashes of pigment. We might be looking down at our feet on the surface of some alien planet. Cosmic matter takes other forms. Tangled skeins of red and yellow paint convolute and react, pulsate and quiver across the entire space of one picture in random fashion. a quantum view of cells you might think. In another sequence of cosmic works, white-light explosions of stringy, diaphanous forms suggest the birth or death of star. The moon has always been a source of wonder and enchantment to mankind, the dominant source of light in the night sky and the subject of myths and stories. Diana, the goddess of the moon, was worshipped in antiquity. She is said to have fallen in love with the beautiful Endymion but could only visit him in sleep. Humans are said to go crazy at the time of full moon and the word has given its name to ‘lunacy’. Werewolves are humans transformed into beasts at full moon. Faces, heads and bodies have been identified in the shadowed parts of the moon giving rise to the legend of The Man in the Moon’. The moon has often featured in art, usually as a distant luminous object in nocturnal or twilit landscapes. This is, of course, how we experience the moon as something far away and mysterious. It is a common feature in romantic art, to be found, for example, in the unearthly landscapes of the German artist Caspar David Friedrich, and the seascapes by Frenchman Claude-Joseph Vernet. The British painter Henry Pether made such a feature of moonscapes that he was named ‘Moonlight Pether.
Charlie Barton’s moons are not far distant as in most pictorial art but close-to. We, the viewers, might be astronauts circling a few hundred miles away or coming into land. Apart from the black framing, there is no surrounding space. Alight with colour and atmosphere, the surfaces are circumscribed by the border of the sphere. The 18th century artist John Russell had specialised in close-ups of the moon, similar in idea and design as those by Charlie, but concerned to record astronomical features as accurately as possible rather than allowing his imagination to roam free. In all her pictures, Charlie Barton is obsessed with the effects she can achieve through the process of painting itself. She is trying to get at the essence of energy and matter in an endless series of experiments. No wonder that she admires the work of Giacometti whose sculptures are, in her words, ‘an endless revision of what he is seeing’, hence their distortions. She starts her pictures on the floor, laying in the first swirling patterns with a palette knife in Alkaflow, a liquid resin. On top of this come layers of pigment mixed with water and turpentine. The surface builds up as the process is repeated, the image evolving and coalescing as she works. Each of her moons is an experiment in swirling patterns and scumbled surfaces There is usually a dominant colour, greeny-blue, maroon and yellow or orange, that sets the tone and mood of the picture. Light and dark plays across the surface adding an element of staging and drama. Within the circle and the square the artist can orchestrate surges of movement and energy that evolve as she paints them. She is in love with paint itself and its possibilities. The moon is other-worldly but it surfaces are deeply physical and tactile. That is where the power in her pictures comes from. Given the explosive physicality of the surfaces she creates, it is no surprise to discover that among those artists who have inspired her most are the Spaniard Antoni Tapies and the German Anselm Kieffer. The former is a gestural artist whose paint sometimes assumes the character of a sculptured relief. Kieffer employs a plethora of different materials to create the dense, tormented surfaces that are the foundation of his apocalyptic vision. She admires Francis Bacon for the same reason, an artist endlessly experimenting and reaching out for something beyond himself. The same could be said for Goya and Caravaggio, two of her favourite old masters.
Charlie Barton has had a productive career, and her work has featured in group shows and solo exhibitions. Se is not a follow-my-leader kind of artist but someone who pursues her own vision in her own way. She has plans to take her art into deep space, and most recently she has been fired up by a visit to Afghanistan where she experienced the buzkashi. In this traditional sport competing sportsmen attempt to place the carcase of a calf or a goat inside a goal. Surging horses, raised arms and whips and flying mud combine in a frenzy of movement to suggest a cavalry battle. Some of the contestants indeed wear metal helmets made from Russian tanks. So close are we to the action tat we can hear the shouts of Afghan horsemen and smell their excitement. Given space and opportunity the artist could decorate a large public space with a thrilling spectacle.
Richard Ormond, February 2020