Pablo Barba’s Carnival of the Grotesque
There are several paintings scattered around Pablo Barba’s studio, at the end of a far-flung industrial block in Long Island City, Queens. One is of a young woman in a short floral dress gazing wistfully, even tragically, at the plumber fixing her kitchen sink. In another, a different woman, in a pink nightgown, stands at her front door accepting a pizza box from a delivery guy as if it were the newborn Christ. Yet another woman in a third painting is topless and asleep in a lounge chair by a pool, white seagulls flying above her. In the background, a pool boy averts his eyes as he drags a net across the water’s surface to skim off the debris.
Barba, 38, was born in Santiago, Chile, and grew up in the waning days of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, when there weren’t many opportunities for artists. His grandparents and parents were architects but, he says, “everyone wanted to be a painter. The next-best discipline in a place where being a painter wasn’t really an option was architecture. When I said, ‘Mom and Dad, I’m going to be a painter,’ they were excited.”
The country had neither a notable museum collection nor an art market, which was both limiting and liberating. Barba had difficulty finding certain art supplies, but he was free to paint whatever he wanted. He moved to New York in 2014 to enroll in the M.F.A. program at Columbia and spent a lot of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he was drawn to 17th-century Dutch paintings, particularly those in a Baroque style known as geselschapje, which means “merry company.” Comedic works, they depict grotesque, often ominous acts of consumption in various forms, possibly, Barba says, as “a Protestant reaction to ‘The Last Supper.’”
Of considerable influence to him is Jan Steen — seen in a self-portrait at the center of the masterpiece “The Dissolute Household” (circa 1663-64) bearing an alcoholic’s blush and affectionately tickling the hand of his maid, who with her other hand is pouring Steen’s suitably bosomed and incapacitated wife an overflowing glass of wine. Barba likewise tends to concentrate on moments where decadence tips over into chaos: The paintings are funny, embarrassing, empathetic, ugly and appealing, all at once. His main focus is, to borrow the artist’s own phrase in describing Steen, “a group of people gathered around a table in, basically, debauchery.”
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