Damn. I'm having that dream again—you know the one with the Goo Goo cluster packages and kudzu floating around a lady in a hoop skirt. I think those are catfish logos, too, but I'm not sure. Maybe this time I can recall all the details when I wake up.
Not to worry, Lea Barton remembers—and she recreates it all in her mixed- media paintings in her exhibit "Paradox in Paradise," opening at the Mississippi Museum of Art Saturday, Nov. 9.
Barton was born in Yazoo City and later left Mississippi like many of us, only to return and, as T.S. Eliot said, "know the place for the first time." Barton's work explores our great Southern unconscious by combining images we know so well in unexpected and enlightening ways. Her paintings are like photographs of our subconscious; snapshots of who we are underneath our skins. She says she does actually dream some of her work; after it hits the canvas, it evolves over a year or more to reveal the final work.
In "Ghosts" she borders icons of Southern womanhood—pearls and hoop-skirted ball gowns—with a quote from Faulkner's "Absalom! Absalom!" in "NO TRESPASSING" type set. Images of women are interspersed with Jesus the Good Shepherd, meekly returning a lamb to the fold. Text and language are integral threads in Barton's work, even leading back to her drawings on notebook paper as a child. The "Ghosts" assemblage literally objectifies the very things that can objectify Southern women, such as religion and beauty. The paradox comes when you imagine the artist, a Southern woman herself, creating the canvas. She embodies the other side of our femininity—the hard-working, tough-to-the-core hostess able to stand back and assess the situation while maintaining a free and easy exterior that puts everyone at ease. The artist resolves the paradox by acting as a bridge from one reality to another.
Barton's childhood experience as a Navy brat may have helped her learn how to maneuver different realities. Yazoo City summers spent with her grandmother were the constant that allowed Barton glimpses of Mississippi after short absences. Perhaps that's how Barton achieves her unique objectivity and belonging in her work (another paradox). Segregation, Emmett Till, religion, Elvis, Southern belles, cotton and the blues are all part of her story on canvas. Her subjects receive different treatments in Pop Art style: Beautiful African-American women in hats are icons in "Lids," much like Andy Warhol's soup cans. The women in the painting are actually dear friends of Barton who give us a glimpse of new themes coming up in her future work. Barton says that hats figure prominently in new smaller works set in jewel tones, a series she calls "Sunday Morning."
Women's clothing, like the hats, figures prominently in "Paradox in Paradise." In "Charm School," another belle-of-the-ball dress is covered in ads from the newspaper for modeling classes. The whole painting is then splattered and dripped like a Pollock to use the action of the painter herself to create dissonance. Our perfect hostess smashes one image of Southern womanhood to integrate our past and present.
Barton tries to explore all the images of Southerners in her work, particularly Southern women. She is a petite woman with bright eyes and a warm smile that draws you in—very good belle material—yet she quickly subverts that image with a story about collecting road kill to get bones to make a necklace for one of her works. Her work strives to make sense of all the contradictions we Southern women live with on a daily basis—although most of them don't involve road kill.
In her life at the Pratt Institute in New York, Barton was known to some as the "Belle of Brooklyn." Her Southern-ness was an oddity to many New York friends who expressed shock that she was "actually smart" and wasn't just some stereotypical Daisy Mae, she says. Barton turned the New Yorkers' Southern bigotry back on them with humor and her own natural charm.
Barton has led many lives in the short span of 46 years: her concurrent lives in Yazoo City and other parts of the country; her life as an artist masquerading as legal secretary; and as an artist in New York trying to maintain a firm grasp on her Southern roots for the sake of her art. She has created a fascinating body of work that is simultaneously objective and fiercely personal, holding up the images of our unconscious for us to finally see and embrace. Barton says she is very proud to be back home and to have a show at the Mississippi Museum of Art. Her art, life and home have finally met in the same place.
Lea Barton's "Paradox in Paradise" opens Nov. 9 at the Mississippi Museum of Art (201 E. Pascagoula St., 960-1515).