The Romance of Everything

The Face of Everything: Daniel Barrow
July 18 – July 28, 2002

a response to the exhibition by Robert Enright

Winnipeg artist Daniel Barrow is a latter-day romantic who is conducting an ongoing inquiry into the nature and conditions of the romantic sensibility. In Looking for Love in the Hall of Mirrors (2001) he used his special form of animated drawing to present a portrait of the would-be artist as a young man-about-town, discovering the contours of urban life and of his blossoming sexuality. It was a charming annunciation – coming on while coming out – and in both technique and content it held out considerable promise.

No one will be disappointed by the most recent chapter in Barrow’s ongoing Book of Romance. The Face of Everything (which he performed at aceartinc. during last year’s Winnipeg International Fringe Festival as part of the aceartinc. Special Program Doppler: Weather or Not, We’ve Got to Talk About It) is both more ambitious and more accomplished than his initial foray into the aesthetics of romance. The story focuses on the rise to fame and (gifted) fortune of a beautiful young boy who becomes the “personal assistant and protégé “to Devo, “the guru of glitter”, an impossibly handsome entertainer who is presented as a cross between Liberace and Tom Jones. His show is a paradigm of over-the-topness, an opportunity to leave the stage at the drop of a feather boa in order “to slip into something more spectacular. “Barrow’s writing is witty and finely paced, and delivered in a tone that, paradoxically, combines distance with engagement.

The Face of Everything is a variation on the Cinderella story, although there is no wicked stepmother or murder of stepsisters to frustrate the hero’s rightful place in the adulatory limelight. The antagonist in this narrative is beauty itself, and the emotional and physical demands that it places on the young man. The magic of the world the narrator has been given access to begins to collapse when Devo decides “to amalgamate their features”, an act of plastic surgery that embodies his impeccable and uncompromising narcissism. The narrator’s fluctuating submission to Devo’s visual authority and his rejection of it introduces the worm of doubt in Devo’s mind and sets in motion a gradual dissolution of their adored and adoring relationship. The result is 12 weeks of paid leave from Devo’s show and the unarticulated threat of diminished affection.

The narrator is thoroughly aware of the heart-altering complications and entanglements in which he’s involved, and he shares this self-awareness with his counterpart in Looking for Love in the Hall of Mirrors. In that earlier narrative, the central relationship was a connection between beauty and sadness; in The Face of Everything beauty and suffering are the core conditions, with the addition of the pain that results from their consummation. In this respect, Barrow’s narrative is classically romantic; the young protege declares he has “always taken my happiness sadly” and that he has cultivated a knowledge of suffering. “I came to the realization that the core of despair is very beautiful,” and he embraces”…the idea that someday I can claim the beauty was worth the pain.”

In many ways The Face of Everything chronicles the emergence of an aesthetics of despair, a serious tongue-in-cheek inventory of those choices and situations that are likely to manufacture a sense of loss and sadness. Along the way, the narrator has a way of collapsing large chunks of his life into neat declarations of intent and finality. “I had promised to cut all ties with my past,” he announces. There is in his position an unusual mixture of hedonism and stoicism, as if Quentin Crisp and Thomas More were a tag-team. To put it in the frame of a Hemingwayesque encomium: he lives in a world of grace under pleasure.

Much pleasure can be taken from watching the graceful way that Barrow works. His medium (variously described as graphic performance, live illustration or manual animation) is surprisingly adaptable to a range of moods, not the least of which is a species of darkness that functions well within his romantic orientation. While it never becomes gothic, there are moments when the overlaying of transparencies produces some eerie effects, including the simple movement of a pair of blue eyes inside the empty mask of a baby’s face, and the ominous flurry of butterflies too near a lit candle. At the heart of romanticism is the nagging recognition that everything changes and that nothing is forever, whether love or beauty or, for that matter, suffering itself. Nothing is harder on the romantic soul than the realization that suffering is finite and the delicious feelings of anguish that are its benchmarks, are impermanent.

For all of its humour and intelligent playfulness, there remains at the centre of Daniel Barrow’s art a tone that can only be described as buoyant melancholy. While he hasn’t written and performed his lines in a country churchyard, a wash of elegy unmistakably moves across his work like watercolour across absorptive paper. He is a sort of contemporary Hamlet, almost thinking too precisely on the event. But like the melancholic Dane, he finds in that condition an inexhaustible source of material on which to draw.

Robert Enright is a writer and curator and the Editor-at-Large for Border Crossings magazine.