A brilliant testimony

Asheville painter Rita Barnes has never formally studied botany, but many of the 72 small paintings in her latest exhibit, Leaving the Book of Lies, seem fashioned with a scientific curiosity.

Each work honors a single fall leaf, set against a black-paper background that’s subtly altered from work to work. Some leaves are so precisely delineated they look utterly real, like pressed leaves in a scrapbook. With others, the artist deflowers the notion of perfect accuracy by means of imaginative shading and energetic, almost electric patterns in the paintings’ backgrounds. The more realistic leaves emerged later in the year-long project, Barnes revealed in a recent interview:

“In the beginning [of the series], I started off in a way that was not as specific and realistic. It was not as highly detailed, but [used] a more loosely painted [approach], with a more atmospheric blending of the background with the leaf itself. But by the time I ended, the leaves were very specific.”

Part of the reason for that, she admits, “was because I had found a brush I really loved to use, about two-thirds of the way through [the project], and that dictated how detailed the work became.”

Pragmatism tempered with mystery is a quality that fairly hums from these lovely miniatures; gallery owner Gary Byrd praises the rich, “painterly” quality of the works, which are rendered in gouache (an opaque watercolor).

The pieces are not named, but merely numbered. In fact, the artist says that in the project’s early stages, she didn’t even know (or much care to) what kind of leaf she was painting.

“I started experimenting with different kinds of leaves and found that I was just choosing whatever leaf looked pretty, or whatever leaf happened to be in a state of disintegration or decay — it didn’t matter, really,” she notes. “I found leaves that had an interesting shape or a beautiful color. It wasn’t important to me at the time to name the leaf, whether it came from an oak or maple. But once I started looking at all the variations of the leaves, I started studying about them, and now I can say, ‘Yes, this [came from] a pin oak.'”

In her artist’s statement, Barnes reveals that she learned much more about her subject than she had ever imagined possible: “I discovered another world — beautiful colors, intricate patterns and an internal order that I hadn’t appreciated before.” And though many of the paintings turned out highly realistic, her work was governed by a deep sense of mystery, she says: “It was about many things — light and shadow, reality and illusion, permanence and nonpermanence.”

With keen delicacy, she highlights the surface contours of one painted leaf in such a way that the web of lines is transformed into a tiny, winter-frosted tree. Another specimen is so splendidly yellow it was clearly chosen as a subject for its color and for no other reason. Some of the leaf models came from the late-fall litter (all were collected last year) and thus look more brittle — but somehow no less subdued — than their sunnier companions. A few contain holes that, close up, reveal the leaves’ fragile inner network.

“As the autumn wore on, the leaves starting turning browner, raveling at the edges, falling apart,” Barnes reminisces. “When the moisture left the leaves, there was this very dry, skeletal sort of vein work. That was a surprise to me. … It was beautiful.”

The exhibit takes its name from a larger project that the artist was involved with for a time: “It was an international artists’ project that was being curated by a woman out in Los Angeles, wherein she invited poets and visual artists to talk about their perception of what is truth, and what is a lie,” explains Barnes. “She needed 80 hand-done, one-of-a-kind pieces [from each artist], which she was going to put into 80 different portfolios. Some were going into major collections, some were for sale — but the idea was left wide open for us to interpret any way we wanted to. And rather than get into an overly philosophical approach regarding what I perceived as reality and illusion, I decided to do something quite simple. From my daily walks with my dog, I was constantly picking up leaves anyway, and thinking, ‘Well, this would be pretty cool to draw, or to paint.’ So I … started saving them.”

Her intention, she says, was to “comment on what I perceive to be quote-unquote ‘real.’ [The paintings] look [like real leaves] — and, in fact, that is an illusion. They are not real.”

When the curator could not procure sufficient funding to expedite the portfolio project, Barnes decided to withdraw from the proceedings and continue her part of the endeavor solo. And though she may still contribute to the project, it will have to be with a new concept; the leaves, she says, will remain close to home.

“I didn’t want to send [the paintings] away — that was the ultimate reason I decided not to do it,” she confesses. “What was going to happen, each one was going to be divvied off into a [separate collection], and I would never see it again. And I wanted to show the paintings here, in Asheville. The more time I spent with them, the more I realized they were meant to be viewed together.”

A longtime admirer of Persian and Indian miniaturists, the artist explains why she likes to work small: “I like the intimacy of looking at something and taking pleasure in all its tiny details. It’s a quiet beauty; it doesn’t come up and smack you on the head. … If a piece is made small enough, someone will look longer than they normally would — and maybe they’ll appreciate the effort it took to make it. I like walking up to something and looking closely at it, and if I’d had the ability to use a larger magnifying glass [in making the leaf paintings], I would have.” As it was, the act of constantly focusing and unfocusing her attention with the magnifier she did use caused her considerable eyestrain.

If Barnes requires observers to absorb themselves in her work, it’s no more than she expects of herself. Under the guidance of Byrd and his business partner, she has been actively involved in making prints and posters of her pieces. Art, for her, means a love of process, not product. “The closer you look [at nature], what [evolves] is a never-ending pattern, a harmony of symmetry and asymmetry that works together very unpredictably in a way that I find extremely interesting,” she enthuses. “What you see in the beginning is not at all what you eventually see.”

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