Barbara Rossi: Selected Paintings, drawings, and quilts: 1967-1990

Joe Scanlan, 1991

Since the mid-1960s Barbara Rossi has been on a very intense and complicated personal quest towards the union of formal beauty and spiritual grace in her artworks. Early in the artist’s career this dichotomy takes the form of softly colored, amorphous pencil drawings that are vaguely suggestive of faces and heads. The drawings are reminiscent of primordial pools or drifting vapors or clouds in which one might surmise groupings of eyes, noses and lips aided by a fixed gaze and an active imagination. In these drawings whatever human features can be visually coalesced by the viewer can be just as easily dissolved, creating an abstract, pictorial tension in Rossi’s works that becomes more literal and allegorical over time.

In the paintings of the early 1970s Rossi continued her investigation of constructing and suggesting human heads, however on entirely different formal and conceptual terms. These paintings are all executed in acrylic on clear Plexiglas, a process which requires the artist to determine what will be in the foreground of the painting first and the background last, in essence the exact opposite of how a painting is normally made. In forcing herself to think backwards Rossi generated and entered into a strange dialogue with the compositional and chromatic formulation of the image. She would begin by painting a shape and then a shape in response to that shape, slowly working her way out from the center until each image had realized itself. Rather than expend her creative energy adjusting surface details Rossi begins with and thus confounds these details, spending the bulk of the concentration these paintings require adjusting to and “living with” decisions she’s already made.

While these paintings often look like piles of weird laundry or body parts in the sense that they are accumulations of colors and shapes, as singular and iconic images they still most strongly reference the human head, and incorporate a whole range of social and psychological associations through their perverse and meticulous construction. These paintings could be seen as representing the piling up in one’s mind of variously-shaped information, experiences, or memories; as exotic but burdensome “emotional baggage” people often accumulate in their lives; or Rossi’s implicit awareness and reversal of society’s (overemphasis on surface appearances, as in hair styles, plastic surgery, or cosmetics. In these paintings it is the beauty and intensity of Rossi’s endeavor that enriches her work and creates its sensual and tactile appearance.

In the mid-1970s Rossi began what Carol Becker refers to as the “Navigation” series, in which she moved away from depicting static and centrally composed heads to narrative figures in the form of intricate knots amidst theatric settings or scenes. This shift from painting as an object with which the artist converses to painting as a means of telling suggesting a story is important, and one which the artist continues to address to this day. As Becker states:

It would seem that the “Head and Shoulders” series could have continued to infinity, but at a certain point the work toe a dramatic turn… A vocabulary develops which one is able to read with greater ease, and the images begin to take on ne meanings in relationship to each other. The formal shifts fro vertical to horizontal. Here the figurative images are fashioned from designs for sailors’ knots, Celtic knots, Girl Scout knots. Knots become a consistent way of representing the body at the human condition.

This condition has evolved in Rossi’s paintings fro the operatic journeys of the late 1970s (De Risen, 1978), to the implicit danger of the bedroom and “hospital” scenes of the early eighties (Crucifixion by a Thread, 1983), to the most recent courtship paintings (Coup, 1990). In these images, as her earliest works Rossi seeks to strike a balance between the formal, chromatic grace of the picture — a very high-keyed almost musical harmony and clarity — and the potency of the story which is about to unfold. Rossi suggests that this balance this union, can take many forms: the physical, temporary complicity of dancers to the emotional and eternal bond of lovers. In all of these unions an even higher Gestalt is possible a oneness that lifts both parties to an epiphanic lightness soulfulness, and calm.