Jim Barrett has been painting in Los Angeles for the past forty five years. Growing up in Topanga Canyon in the 50s and 60s, he found inspiration in the changing landscape of the Santa Monica Mountains. When he moved to Los Angeles to attend the prestigious Art Center College of Design in 1970, the city’s character replaced the rural landscape as prime motivation for his paintings. Tree bark, rye grass and scrub oak were replaced by stucco, cinderblock, and asphalt as textures of choice. As to the people of L.A., the variety of dress, ornamentation, and facial features displayed every day in his neighborhood were a gift for Barrett the painter and has defined a large aspect of his work ever since.
Barrett’s enrollment at the Art Center College of Design happened at a time when the Fine Arts Department changed its emphasis from classical techniques to more conceptual considerations. As a result, he benefited from the experience of instructors ranging from the great master, Lorser Feitelson, to the cutting edge artist, Llyn Foulkes. The skills he learned there not only allowed him to make a living doing commercial art, but also bought him the time he needed to focus on developing his own ideas and experiments with painting and drawing.
Barrett views his time as an illustrator and graphic designer as beneficial in forming discipline and focus, but realized that making art was beyond technique and primarily an amorphous experience. “Creating a piece of art is a constantly changing journey. There are no correct or incorrect choices, whether it’s a journey from the beginning to the end of a painting or, for that matter, the journey of one’s life. However, one must always consider jettisoning the predictable and instead, embrace and exploit any happy accidents that may come one’s way.”
For example, in the early eighties Barrett made a short animated film, aware that it most likely wouldn’t serve any practical purpose. Nevertheless, the little film put into motion a serendipitous set of events that opened the door to his participation in the pioneering stages of Computer Graphics Animation. “As an artist, the possibility of having one’s drawings and images be able to move was absolutely irresistible.”
Variations of the human form have anchored much of the work that Barrett has made over the years. It was from his figure studies that he was hired to design the Screen Actor’s Guild statuette for the SAG Awards Ceremony. More often than not the figures in his paintings are life size, enabling the viewer to share the space with them more intimately. His massive War Complex altarpiece features figures contorted by the specter of war, just as some of his inner city figures are treated similarly.
The subject of Barrett’s art has nearly always been a reflection of his environment; watercolor landscapes of the hills and mountains of his youth gave way to the textures and multicultural influences of inner city Los Angeles, and most recently, the graphic and psychological possibilities of pets and people. He has made an effort not to limit himself to a single medium or approach in his art.
“I have tried to be true to myself in my work and create pieces with a visual impact. Explaining the meaning behind my paintings may be of some interest to the viewer and what I may wish to convey is certainly important to me. But equally important, I think, is the unique meaning it may hold for each individual viewer, and the connection it may have to their own life’s experience.”