In Modern Painters III (1856), John Ruskin named the tendency to ascribe human emotion or agency to objects in nature “the pathetic fallacy.” The fallacy emerges, Ruskin claimed, from an excited state of feeling, a temporary unreason. A search for that heightened response informed Hayley Barker’s exhibition of sensuously painted landscapes (2010 and ’11), where, according to the pictures’ anthropomorphizing titles, trees become friends, creeks sing and the wind speaks in mysterious voices. In depictions of sylvan streams and animated skies, Barker conveys a hypersensitive communion with the environment; in the process, she also imparts, with thick impasto and buttery surfaces, an ecstatic sense of the sumptuous materiality of oil paint.
A native Oregonian, Barker comprehends the ineffable beauty of the Pacific Northwest. She called this exhibition “Cathedrals,” proposing sites of religious experience in nature, and several paintings suggest arboreal enclosures in which transcendent moments might be had. Cathedral 5 (Their Arms) and Friends present worm’s-eye views of muted heavens glimpsed through a deciduous canopy. Caught up in the dizzying perspective of such scenes, one thinks of O’Keeffe’s similarly exultant Lawrence Tree (1929), with its disorienting vista of a star-spangled sky, but Barker’s own paintings of the nocturnal heavens, inky-black and viscous like tar, recall van Gogh’s turbulent Starry Night (1889) while bordering on abstraction. Barker evokes the Northwest region’s often overcast dreariness in a palette of browns and grays, yet occasionally captures a luminous radiance, for example in The Sun Shines Yellow (Dazzlement), with its citrus-hued flower field—or is it an angelic chorus?—surrounding a brightly glowing orb. Here the sun seems to have descended to earth; forms are indistinct, bathed in blinding light.
Drawing directly from nature to produce her ultimately visionary paintings, Barker does not approach landscape naively or even as a spiritual adept. Her project is textually mediated, inspired by the childhood diary of the legendary Opal Whiteley (1897-1992). An amateur naturalist and mystic who grew up in an Oregon logging camp, Whiteley self-published the enchanting Fairyland around Us in 1918, traveled internationally in search of fame, and died in a British asylum, diagnosed as schizophrenic. Intrigued by the disputed diary, supposedly reconstructed by the adult Whiteley from fragments and published in 1920, Barker sought woodland places to resonate with particular passages; her paintings’ titles are in fact Whiteley quotations. The editorializing subtitle, however, of the exuberant, quasi-abstract Grayness (Prodrome), where a sunburst parts heavy clouds, hints at a psychotic episode: “prodrome” describes an early stage of events such as hysterical seizures and mental breakdowns. Alternative states of consciousness, it turns out, are as much a concern in these paintings as nature itself. Ruskin theorized a deeply sensitive temperament would generate the pathetic fallacy, and with her tenuous grip on reality, Whiteley indeed perceived a haunted world. In art, as in religion and madness, consciousness can be other than ordinary. Barker strives to imagine and approximate this deranged susceptibility, listening attentively for voices in the wind.
Photo: Hayley Barker: Cathedral 5 (Their Arms), 2011, oil on panel, 12 by 16 inches; at Charles A. Hartman.