Is it possible that Father Joe, the Benedictine hero of Tony Hendra’s best-selling memoir, has been reincarnated and is living in West Asheville?
DeWayne Barton’s politics likely steer him away from mainstream Catholicism, but the artist does echo the monk’s generous spirit, his ready joyfulness, his gentleness and his apparent belief in the eventual turnabout of evil.
Barton is an artist who seems to nurse no ambition, veiled or otherwise, to have his work hanging in Ethan Allen dining rooms. His art is about the things he sees around him every day — things that he finds disturbing.
Yet there’s no anarchist spirit here, no bitterness — just a matter-of-fact presentation of the situation as the artist sees it.
Barton seems unconcerned that his creations are standing exposed to the sun and rain in his backyard, instead of in some white-walled, climate-controlled gallery.
Not that the pieces aren’t well traveled: He took one of the largest — currently installed on a homemade trailer — to his family reunion, and then to the Reed Community Center on Livingston Street.
“Why Vote” is constructed on a red-painted wood frame, with an American flag wrapped around its left side and combat boots with bloody soles hanging by their laces from the top. But the most haunting element of the piece is a hooded head, set grotto-like into the interior. The figure is a mere specter, not the usual Klansman caricature; it’s an almost unseen presence no less frightening for its vagueness.
The still-in-progress “Mayberry Undercover” shows an upright vacuum with a ripped cloth bag sitting atop a vintage TV console. The bag is stuffed with money, and prescription bottles promising life-changing relief dangle on string from the machine’s handle.
Barton says he plans to fill the blank TV screen with the flowery images pharmaceutical companies use to advertise their wares. But his comment on racial profiling, “Rear View Mirror,” is determinedly unlovely: here, a nest of rifles frames a collage of photographed faces, and a rope shaped into a noose dangles in the work’s center. Red police tape streams from a bloody nightstick.
Chains create the frame for “Sleeping Justice,” a large photograph of naked-to-the-waist black men above which is perched a wire pet cage on a rickety stand. The pen, filled with figures of the imprisoned, is topped with a once-beautiful satin pillow. This, in turn, is crowned with a pair of white praying hands, which are securely fastened in a plastic bag, isolated and insulated from any consequence of their own actions.
Other assemblages address the issues of AIDS, gangs, war, and the destruction of the environment.
An old door surrounded by toy dump trucks and bulldozers represents gentrification, a growing issue in Barton’s neighborhood. A white drainpipe is affixed to one side of the door, and rumpled chain link encloses the other side. The figure of a Native American stands sentinel, and a plastic white man holds a $100 bill inscribed with the words “get out.”
Barton was born in Asheville, but grew up in D.C. After high school he joined the Navy and saw the world, visiting Cuba, Africa, Europe and Puerto Rico. He then left the service, went to college in Norfolk, Va., and finally came back to Asheville about two years ago to be near his mother.
The artist also writes and performs poetry, and works behind the ominous razor-wire fence at the Juvenile Evaluation Center. When he walks across the campus there, kids sometimes call out to him, quoting a line from one of his poems.
When Barton relates this to me, he grows even more radiant than before.
Call 252-5603 to make an appointment to view DeWayne Barton’s work.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer.]