Once, while Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.
And he said unto them, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.
And they immediately left their nets and followed him.
Barnaby Furnas has always had a penchant for drama in paint. Images of heavy metal bands and great veils of crashing, velvety, blood-red seas. Here Furnas has taken as his starting point Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and elements from the story of Jonah and the whale. As ambitious as it might seem, to cast such a large net, he has managed to bring in, through an eclectic amalgam of styles and technique, a fine catch. Furnas described his enterprise: “What interested me about whaling in the first place was that they (the whales) gave us light—their fat allowed us to bring God’s light into the darkness of the night so we could see our fingers and maybe read after the sun went down.”
Furnas is not the first painter to be drawn to the whaling/painting analogy—van Gogh compared the two oily arts, Frank Stella monotonously tried to illustrate Melville’s manuscript chapter by chapter, and Sean Landers recently set sail with paintings of clown captains. Furnas draws from some of these sources, as well as a whole history of modernist painting, and cobbles together something entirely his own here. In these paintings the emphasis is on the painting’s ground, into which washes of pigment are stained, ground, or spattered; areas are masked or taped loosely, allowing the liquidity of the paint to flow under the hard edges. His seemingly controlled approach to painting is belied by gravity’s effects; nature has the upper hand here. Though anticipated, the effects surprise.
Barnaby Furnas, The Flenser #3, 2012, water-dispersed pigments, dye, and acrylic on linen, 42 x 34 in. / 112.1 x 81.6 cm; © The artist / courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.
There are numerous small panels of whalers: the flensers, the portioners, and one of an Abraham Lincoln-y looking Ahab in a stove-pipe hat. (The Flenser #3 , The Portioner , Ahab #1 ). These small “character studies,” spattered with whale blood, go about their jobs, their deft speed connoted by multiple, Cubo-Futurist-style arms, carving away—a metaphor for the painter at work, as well as the Puritanical references that Furnas aims for (many hands make light work, Benjamin Franklin wrote). A vertical figure standing in front of an arched whale’s tail becomes a tale of a different sort (Jonah and the Whale #4 ), with its waterfall surface creating a Veronica’s Veil in paint.
Barnaby Furnas, Jonah and the Whale #4, 2012, water-based pigment, color pencil, and acrylic on linen, 70 x 51 in. / 177.8 x 129.5 cm; © The artist / courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.
The largest painting, The Whalers (2012), is reminiscent of John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778), both for its large-scale theatrics and for the way in which narrative is conveyed through the gestures of the figures—as well as the painter’s gestures through his materials. Here the whale is mortally wounded; a plume of blood gushes and spatters, and perfect droplets of blood and something rectangular and white, like confetti, emerge from the blowhole. Seagulls flap in all directions. The figures are rigid with the strain of the killing and possibly frozen with fear. The sea roils. In a painterly gesture of great mastery, Furnas has penciled in the whale’s upper row of teeth yet left them unpainted, telegraphing the whale’s ultimate fate, Achilles-like. Here we are truly reminded of Melville and his Ahab’s end—but we, the viewers of this spectacle, are lucky Ishmael, left standing. “The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? Because one did survive the wreck. ... I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks.”
(Image on top: Barnaby Furnas, The Whalers, 2012, water-dispersed pigments, dye, and acrylic on linen, 144 x 195 in. / 365.8 x 495.3 cm; © The artist / courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.)