June 18, 2015
By Scott Indrisek
“I think there a lot of Freudian jokes,” Ellen Harvey said, discussing some 800 objects that comprise the late Albert Barnes’s collection of ironwork, which are hung alongside the famed paintings at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. One figurative piece, for instance, depicts what Harvey termed a “priapic dog-devil” posed next to an angel. “Is that a fifth leg?” she wondered, pointing out a suspicious appendage, “or is that what I think it is?” Elsewhere, the artist finds a shared element in the ironwork’s swooping curves — “Fallopian tubes,” she said, when I asked her what visual properties unite the collection. “And look how many look like little buttocks, little bum-curves.”
Who knew ironwork could be so sexy? Harvey has had plenty of time to ponder the intricacies, Freudian and otherwise, of the Barnes collection: She’s been meticulously painting each piece for a commission that debuts at the foundation on September 19. Titled Metal Painting, the wall-covering work is composed of individual paintings magnetically affixed to a metal support. (This week, Harvey previewed an in-progress version of the installation at a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.) Harvey’s commission — the latest in a series of collaborations that the Barnes Foundation has undertaken with contemporary artists — will open in conjunction with Strength and Splendor, a survey of additional ironwork on loan from the Musee Le Secq des Tournelles in Rouen, France. Curator Judith Dolkart, speaking at the installation preview, said that Barnes “regarded the metalwork to have equal footing with the paintings in his collection.” That’s a philosophy that Harvey expanded upon with her commission. “What if you take the metalwork and turn it into a painting? And why is something more artistic because it’s useless?” she wondered. “Let the hinge have its moment!”
The effect of Harvey’s Metal Painting is of a massive wall of computer icons, as if all of Barnes’s wrought-iron bounty were arrayed on the screen of a laptop. Silhouetting the individual objects allowed them to be seen in a new light. “When you make them flat they look very contemporary, and so fashionable,” she said. “I hadn’t thought of them that way. And I like this idea that you can see the entire mania of Barnes’s collection in one glance. There’s a crazy side to collecting, and I wanted to say: Check out the craziness.” Each piece’s outline is hand-painted, with the occasional wobbly line (“I like things to be a little pathetic,” Harvey explained).