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Life in Full

Barry Nemett graciously puts his own experiences into his art

Barry Nemett installs "Passages."

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 10/7/2009

Barry Nemett: Paintings, Poems and Passages

Through Oct. 24 at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson

In recent years, Barry Nemett, an energetic polymath and professor of painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art, has been on a creative spurt. He published his first novel, Crooked Tracks, set in Renaissance Italy and Hackensack, N.J., in 2006. A traveling exhibition assembled last fall, Language of Landscape: Works from Italy is still on tour. And Paintings, Poems, and Passages, the title of both this Creative Alliance exhibit and a retrospective catalog published this year, connects Nemett's most recent work with older multi-media pieces combining painting, sculpture, and language.

Nemett has been a professor at MICA since 1971, and this exhibit is as much a summation of his experience as an educator as it is of his own work. Almost every work in the piece is either collaborative--most often with MICA's past philosopher-in-residence Richard Kalter--or immediately traceable to Nemett's life, such as a series of paintings of the view from his window at home or scenes in Umbria, Italy, where he teaches in the summer. While many artists are frustratingly vague about the meanings and inspirations behind their work, in this show every piece is open without losing any of its lure.

Like the Renaissance-era paintings that inspire Nemett's recent work, the large gouache-on-paper pieces in this show picture doors, windows, and endless vistas. Large vertical paintings, such as "View from Montecastello with Tiber River," picture slices of land and sky divided in such a way that it appears that the viewer is not so much looking out a window as hovering in the clouds. While Nemett's earliest paintings, featured in the catalog but not the exhibit, are minimalist still lifes of books, in Italy he finds a landscape that brings out his maximalist sensibilities.

Nemett does use the traditional painting square in this show--most impressively in the series of color paintings based on views from his home in Baltimore--but his propensity to collaborate, to build and explore, is demonstrated in the largest works in the show. The 1989 "Sideglances" is one of the earlier examples of how Nemett is able to draw not just from his own inspirations, but also from others, to create works that remain structurally and philosophically whole.

In the very large piece, smaller squares representing some of Nemett's favorite representational objects--books, rocks, birds, and sky--are interlaced with text from Kalter, whose sonorous words are written on top of the images and hidden in the panels between them. While Kalter's writings are, at times, overwrought, Nemett distills them in this work, allowing the surplus of language to become yet another layer of texture. Although Nemett's own interest in writing is clear, his ability to turn the words of others into an elemental piece of a work is particularly evident in this show.

The most unlikely collaboration in the show is between Kalter, Nemett, and his son Adam, who was nine years old in 1989 when he wrote a poem about an owl and a castle. The sparseness of the poem's language is contrasted with Nemett's many-paneled work that reproduces the world his son may have imagined. While many art works inspired by children are simple in their structure, using, say, a series of views illustrating specific characters and situations, in this work we get much closer to what a child's imagination may actually be like. By placing the work next to a piece he made for the recent marriage of his son, Nemett grounds what could be a very abstract work in his own experience.

Although there is no one piece that could be described as the centerpiece of the show, Nemett's "Passages," made between 2006 and 2008, is a bridge between his earlier collaborative works and the solo work from Italy. Like "Sideglances," this large graphite-on-paper piece, with a carved frame by Stuart Abarbanel, is a multi-perspective work, showing staircases that lead nowhere, round and square doors, and two different views of what appears to be the same woman. The paper squares that make up the larger piece are not hidden from sight, even in its catalog reproduction, so there is no illusion that what's before the viewer is a unified space. Abarbanel's frame contains little doors, which have roughly the same dimensions of Nemett's ground-and-sky paintings of Italy, suggesting that "Passages" might be a key to those works as well.

Again and again in this show, it is clear that Nemett is not only an artist of many talents, but also an artist who is able to draw from and work with others to enrich his own endeavors. His background as an educator is not surprising, and while these works might speak most deeply to those who know and work with Nemett, they are representative of a life, and a career, that appears from the outside to be very fulfilling.

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