"Flowers are attention-seekers. Look at me, each cluster of petals and stamens demands. Focus on me, zoom in on me. Concentric bursts of colour and scent, they flaunt themselves so as to lure in the browsing pollinator. In this remarkable corpus of paintings and sketches, Carol Barsha responsively hones in, bee-close, on the spectacular, flagrant clamorousness of garden and meadow flora. Her lilies, zinnias and teazels have the swagger of heraldic beasts. Like some lion or eagle on an antique blazon, each flowerhead feels supercharged, intoxicated, on its own rampant vitality.
There's fellow-feeling involved. A painting is itself a claim on visual attention. Seizing on some scarlet or yellow bloom, Barsha asserts the root impulse of her medium: shout it out, so that the viewer's eyes start listening. Her work on the sheet of paper commonly seems to begin with that identification, some vivacious flowerhead being set down first so as to lead the way.
But the flower has not the sheet's right angles. Pictures are rarely concentric in format. Pictures are less likely, you might infer, to deliver simple shots of visual stimulus. Rather, they tend to offer themselves up as garden-like rectangles around which our eyes are free to wander. So you might infer: but it happens that these assumptions were being pushed around and subjected to concerted challenge by many an American painter of the 1960s. Think of the ways that a Kenneth Noland "target", a Frank Stella stripe painting or a Brice Marden panel put them to the test. Can or should a painting be one thing? Must a painting always be a space with something "in" it?
What is remarkable about Barsha's current body of works on paper is that many a decade onwards, those old conundrums spring to life again, resurfacing on a smaller scale in an altered artistic context. The pictures in question are largely based on plein air sketching sessions at Beetlebung Farm on Martha's Vineyard, a site Barsha has visited for more than twenty-five years: but an intense few weeks spent at Soaring Gardens Artists' Retreat in Pennsylvania added an important dimension to the corpus. Some of the pictures on view were made as direct responses to the motif, while others have been evolved in the studio. It is worth noting that for many painters, plein air depiction feels seductive but distracting - the depicting of flowerbeds most especially. Too easily you become a complaisant receptacle for nature, losing sight of your inner purposes. But nothing of that sort happens here. At every cue for blandness, the art answers back bracing.
Note for instance the space which Barsha's flowers typically occupy - a tight upright corridor. The bright signal of colour that is the picture's genesis floats high in the rectangle of paper and the task becomes to ground it, to track the stem connecting flower to earth. A vertical struggle gets activated. (A typical example would be in Buds Shoot and Flourish.) And then in describing it, Barsha often emphasizes reserves - stretches of sheet left blank, that is. Note the way an paint-free central strip in Cosmos Zinnias & Sunflowers at once stands in for an evanescent interface between garden plantings and reminds us of the sheet's own materiality. Poised yet nervy, sophisticated yet somewhat jagged, Barsha's inventions never settle down as amenable floral decorations.
At places - in the blurting aggression of the teazels in The Meadow is Swishing, in the gross white fence posts Barsha likes to describe - the pictures echo the late work of her mentor, Philip Guston. Guston, not much of a man for plein air ('My paintings are more real to me than what is outdoors'), came up with a uniquely resonant response to the painting crises of the 1960s by remorseless self-questioning. A new mode of painting 'with things in it' took hold in the wake of his break with abstraction. Barsha has run with it. In earlier works, she has explored the tensions between single concentric objects - tape spools, birds' nests - and overall picture space. But the data gathered at Beetlebung over the past three decades has generated more complex forms of interplay.
Zinnias lurch before fence posts in tipsy apposition in They Brush the Descending Blue. The netting that sways from post to post gives onto a further fence and at its upper edge discloses far trees, a turbulent sky, and a flurry of rooks. What's dramatized, with almost comic exuberance, is the wrench separating palpable objects from the wide world in general - and intervening between the two, artifice, boundary construction, attempts at order such as the netting's wonky grid. Sidling up on her flowerbeds from outrageous angles, Barsha likes to pounce on perspective in these pictures with a vengeance. For instance That Blue is All in a Rush plunges us into a Bonnard-like epiphany encompassing a radically skewed angle of vision; whilst Midnight Garden, where black pastels make way for an equally virtuosic chiaroscuro, strains to maximum the disjuncture between a flat, factual plane and an acceleration heading out to infinity.
I have merely been discussing, as a fellow painter, the kinds of formal intelligence I see these pictures as embodying, because their expressive content seems hardly to need speaking for. Besides the comic exuberance with which Barsha conceives and executes her markmaking, a vivid, open-ended sensuality declares itself: flowers, after all, are often described as the sexual parts of plant species. At the same time there is poignancy in their tremulous, top-laden forms. The opening lines to a Philip Larkin poem spring to my mind - 'Heaviest of flowers, the head / Forever hangs above a stormless bed...' But Barsha, as her choice of evocative titles from Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Seamus Heaney demonstrates, has no wish to insist on some tendentious, anthropomorphic scheme of symbolism. Her pictorial metaphors, reflecting back both on the garden and on the studio, are too capacious and ungovernable for that."
JULIAN BELL - 2012
"Carol Barsha starts with familiar things, launches them into seas of color and follows wherever they take her. That's been her method for years now: finding objects that intrigue and turning them into forms with mythic power. January 7 through 31 Bethesda's Gallery Neptune shows her two latest series inspired by bird's nests and rolls of tape. In the past, Barsha's oil paintings entered realms of fantasy and dream. Human heads erupted in Pentecostal flames; hotel beds floated heavenward on wings. But these later works like "Wisp With Whole Egg" depict actual nests discovered on nature walks. Barsha, of course, still brings a surrealist's sensibility to what she sees. Her colors diverge from natural hues, and her nests and tapes occupy spaces with no horizon lines or perspective clues. She remains fascinated by the inherent elegance of "form follows function."
JEAN LAWLOR COHEN - WHERE/WASHINGTON 2009
"Carol Barsha's "A Logic of Their Own Making" at Gallery Neptune concentrates on the coiled, from the organic - bird's nests - to the man-made(rolls of tape). She works with oil, charcoal and ink, teasing out comparisons that are compelling and engaging."
WASHINGTON POST EXPRESS 2009
"Books float on water. A hand bursts into flames. A boat plows celestial seas. In the world of Carol Barsha, common objects do extraordinary things. Fascinated by Renaissance art and the idea of transformation, she approaches the mundane with an unpremeditated reverence. At Gallery K, her latest paintings - oil and oil stick on paper - venture into mystical and moral territory. Always obsessed by water, Barsha now delights in depicting angels, having discovered that the Talmud describes their bodies as half-fire, half-water. She uses intense blues and reds, once symbols of spiritual states, but places the colors intuitively. Like some latter-day medium, Barsha tunes into the known expecting to hit an unlisted frequency. Even one of her self-portraits suggests revelation; it shows only the top of Barsha's head bursting into Pentecostal fire."
JEAN LAWLOR COHEN - WHERE/WASHINGTON 1998
"Often in surreal paintings, the surface is smooth. The viewer is enticed into the picture by an ominous emptiness or the odd positioning of subjects. Carol Barsha's imagery is direct and simple. Her brush is dry and scumbly. Nothing is hidden in the dream memories she depicts. Bound by viscera, Barsha appears to journey through the self as she shoots through the water and into the air, part Venus and part Frida Kahlo. Books, ladders and canoes transport her to another realm. This inner discovery doesn't translate into sentimentality. The viewer doesn't come away being off-balance or empathizing with this artist, yet there is some glimmer of recognition in thinking about the inner cords that restrain us and keep the creative self in tow."
KEN ODA - KOAN Volume VI Number 8 1998
"Carol Barsha's triptych, "The Love That Binds (I, II and III)" presents an Isaac floating in a limbo of love and oblivion. That is he is caught between realms and he therefore hovers between heaven and earth. But his hovering is also born both of the oblivion of meaninglessness and it is born of love in the most ambiguous of ways. He floats ambiguously in the watery skies, only parts of him - only parts of the story. The rope looped around those visible limbs is red, of course, the colour of blood, of sacrifice, of passion, of love. Barsha's love that binds belongs not to Abraham and Isaac nor to members of any of the three monotheistic traditions alone, but to all humanity."
ORI SOLTES - NATIONAL JEWISH MUSEUM 1997
"Carol Barsha's work has elicited responses such as "surreal," "enigmatic" and "allegorical." It can be all of that and, I would add, "unreal" or even "whimsical" and "melancholic." What strikes me as being even more important and revealing though, is that only rarely does an individual piece embody more than one of these attributes, not to mention several. More than likely an individual work comes on rather forcefully with one emotion or another. What the collective works in this exhibit do show, however, is the artist's sincere search for expression, meaning and direction in her work. Barsha is an artist on the move with an ambitious aesthetic that is not afraid to show every step of the journey - to show the grappling and juggling of problems and possibilities. She devours recent figurative, narrative-implied art history - the classic and the cliched - on her way toward something else, something more. Barsha sites early study with Philip Guston and it shows, though the linkage is not direct for she is well beyond quotation and mimicry. Her own version of a funky-clunky-chunky imagery rendered with a heavy hand. Often coarse, even heedless, but also righteous and effective. It gives character to her work - a sort of Palooka-punch which keeps one interested in finding out more about each painting. And in that search comes the realization that this inner quest might be fully realized in an art Barsha can paint through for a lifetime. Horizons have huge, metaphorical weight in many of her works. One of the things she paints so well is the disarming, even fearful and evasive edge where wind meets wave and water wades ashore. These things never are where we think them to be and may never be assumed to be anywhere in particular. Today's beachside picnic may be tomorrow's burial at sea. The best of Barsha's work stretches toward creative paintings whose formal and classical elements get way beyond the actual image. To a rare place where the painting itself is an embodiment, an analog, if you will, to the huge forces of nature and nurture as they manipulate our lives whatever our degree of awareness. In Barsha's hands these events often assume a joyous, carnival quality. Rightfully so. We still live in a fabulous world full of wonder and beauty for all its implied and implicit terror or mortality. So it will always be - this pattern to our lives. It is not a hard edged design; rather a recurring, repetitive fractal. Familiar, but not exact and never to be taken for granted. While these paintings are imaginative, conjured compositions, unreal in their contrived depictions of time, place and event, Barsha reveals herself to be a keen observer of nature. In "Lost Angel" the wave action and cloud forms clearly share paternity. Rising from recurring natural laws, they mock, mimic and make faces at each other - creatures appear, whether man or shark. Barsha's world keeps unfolding as if the paint itself was full of protoplasmic possibility. "Little Angel Bed," arresting in an alive red shroud, bears what Heavenward? We can only suppose. What is more important is the really exquisite and touching mood within the work - how can it be both funereal and buoyant? These contrasts, enigmas and dichotomies resonate throughout the exhibition, celebrating now and promising much for tomorrow."
LEE WAYNE MILLS - ARTICULATE 1996
"In Carol Barsha's paintings, beds float, ladders bend, oceans press against window panes, and figures with and without wings hover like angels between water and sky. Her recent works are now at Gallery K. Barsha often splices in memories of dreams, but she begins with what she sees in broad daylight - a daughter napping, a son by the shore. She proceeds in the light of art history: the magical flat-space paintings of the Early Renaissance, the colors of Matisse, the brushstrokes of Bonnard, the Old World fantasies of Chagall, and the serious play of her teacher-mentor Philip Guston."
JEAN LAWLOR COHEN - WHERE/WASHINGTON 1996
"In Carol Barsha's watery scenes the protagonist is usually a young woman. Here she floats spread-eagled on permanently waved blue water wearing a green dress and accompanied by the head and tail of a whale-like creature that pokes through the surface. There she lies under a green blanket on two chairs, Mary Jane shoes on the floor and, in the background, an open window giving onto a large wave of brighter green. Other pictures feature her, or a child alone in a boat. The artist does best using oil stick, a drawing medium with the effect of paint that enables her to break up color by applying it in stitches. But regardless of technique, the result is cheerful images filled with a longing for childhood."
VIVIEN RAYNOR - THE NEW YORK TIMES 1994
"Carol Barsha is welcomed back to Westchester with her striking, often enigmatic paintings. Allegorical and even surreal, works like "The Dream" incorporate water and boat-related imagery. Barsha's placement of figures is often puzzling. One wonders where the journey began and where it will end? Who is navigating while the woman sleeps and dreams? Is it the artist who is in control of the passenger's safety? Or is it the viewer who carefully keeps watch at night? Is the colorful painting and strange juxtapositions real or imagined."
ARTS NEWS - WESTCHESTER ARTS COUNCIL 1994
"..the musician in "Clarinet Player on the Balcony" by Carol Barsha is a surrogate for our emotional response to the exhibition. Everything in the painting suggests pleasantness, not least the golden and sunburned tonalities that recall the good life in the south of France as captured by Pierre Bonnard."
WILLIAM ZIMMER - THE NEW YORK TIMES 1991
"The Journey" by Carol Barsha is an up to date enigma featuring a young woman floating on what may or may not be water."
VIVIEN RAYNOR - THE NEW YORK TIMES 1989
"Barsha's paintings, realistic on the surface, often concern autobiographical themes; but her use of dynamic composition and intense pastel colors makes these images reverberate with a variety of overtones."
ROBERT TAYLOR - THE BOSTON GLOBE 1982
"Ms. Barsha's involvement with realism delves into magical places as well as autobiographical subjects. Each art work is filled with a tranquility which can only be found in nature."
THE BRONX MUSEUM OF THE ARTS 1981
"First shows by very young artists generally disclose that they have been looking thoughtfully at pictures. Carol Barsha's, with its evocations of Bonnard, has this admirable quality. She is interested in diffused light distributed by foliage, the refractions of the figure partially in water, the play of the abstract and the volumetric. If much of this seems academic, could she have a better master? Moreover, as the watercolor "Swimming at Wellesley Pond" and the smaller gouaches indicate, here too is something less common - a beginning professional with a real artistic identity."
ROBERT TAYLOR - THE BOSTON GLOBE 1977.