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Two of South Sound’s top artists exhibit at TCC

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Be advised: Setting foot inside the Gallery at Tacoma Community College is going to make your “wow” meter go crazy. The needle is going to hit some high readings as you get smacked in the face by the sumptuous color, dynamic vitality and wild imagery that exists in abundance in the TCC Gallery’s latest show: a two man exhibit of work by Nathan Barnes and Barlow Palminteri, two of the best artists currently working in the South Puget Sound region.

Each artist comes from a different background. Barnes comes from a Mormon milieu and was schooled in Idaho and Utah, while Palminteri – a generation older than Barnes – is Ivy League educated and comes from a Roman Catholic background. Both men, however, are putting out colorful, energetic imagery marked by a very high level of craftsmanship. The work has artistic depth and is well made, with careful attention to detail. There is nothing chintzy here. The gallery becomes like a walk-in treasure chest. One could pick any work in the show and stand looking at it, wonder struck, for a good, long spell. Rarely does one encounter an art show in which such quantity maintains such quality.

Having earned his Masters of Fine Art Degree at Idaho State University, Barnes is now resident in the South Sound area where he is rapidly making a name for himself, both as gallery coordinator of Olympia’s South Puget Sound Community College and as a very active artist participating in many local shows.

His amazing works combine a hard-edged painting style with sculptural elements to create wall-mounted assemblage compositions that bring together cubist multiple perspective, surrealist elements and a pop art vibe. Color, imagery and found objects are all assembled with such impeccable workmanship that they seem as if they could have been produced for mass consumption in a factory. That is to say, they have the crispness and cleanliness of a store-bought object. Yet each one is unique and each explores a multifaceted theme. “Diaspora,” for example, shows a flat, digitized portrait of one of Barnes’ polygamous ancestors. This is in turn mounted on a larger head that is full of holes. A white plastic chain with eight links hangs down the front and the whole piece is surrounded by small, colorful balls that seem to hang in orbit around the head like atomic particles around a nucleus or planets around a star. This is something of a family portrait with the eight-linked chain representing the ancestor’s eight wives and the colorful balls marking the numerous offspring of the ancestral patriarch.

Barnes is restless, seemingly discontent with confinement to the squares and rectangles that bound the ordinary painter. His works overflow and jut outward. Faces and parts of faces overlap. Often there are openings that contain sub imagery.

Barnes used the faces of family members as models for many of the works. There is also a portrait of his fellow artist, Palminteri, in a piece called “Graft,” in which the top of Palminteri’s head is grafted to a leopard-spotted octopus.

Palminteri earned an art history degree from Columbia College in 1970 and later attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He kept active in the arts as he lived life and made his way west. He had a career aboard passenger trains and has finally settled down in the South Sound region where he has unleashed the artistic beast and is producing canvases of monumental scale. Much of the work in the show employs the device of putting paintings within paintings. Sometimes there are even paintings within paintings within paintings. There may be paintings of chairs shown perched upon the very chairs in the paintings. Other works use a technique called mise en abyme, which translates literally as “placed into the abyss” and refers to a feature of heraldry in which a small shield is placed within a larger shield. In big works like “Tarzan and the Romans,” Palminteri will paint a circle containing a sub scene that floats atop the dominant scene of Tarzan fighting a lion or armored, Roman gladiators engaged in heroic combat. Palminteri thus creates complex, often self-referential paintings that function on multiple levels. In addition to such conceptual dexterity, Palminteri beguiles the eye with lush, velvety color and sharp creases denoted by highlights that give them an El Greco quality. This hearkening to El Greco, the Greek-born painter that worked in 16th century Spain, is especially apparent in a work like “Spartacus,” which is Palminteri’s portrait of his fellow artist, Barnes.

The show runs through Aug. 11 with an opening reception and artist talks on July 13, 4 to 6 p.m. The Gallery at TCC is free and open to the public Monday through Thursday from noon to 5 p.m. For further information visit http://www.tacomacc.edu/campuslife/thegallery or call (253) 460-4306.

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