"We need more radicals like Mr. Curtis today!" someone demands in the fast-filling guest book of Curtis R. Barnes's solo show at the Frye Art Museum. The "today" is underlined. Barnes is almost 71 years old. This is the first museum exhibition of his paintings, drawings, and illustrations. He once cocreated a 60-foot outdoor mural that galvanized the African American part of this city; Essence magazine praised it as "hardly material one would expect to be sanctioned by city government," then it was destroyed by those same authorities.
Barnes tries to make nice, peaceful, nonpolitical art, but something always happens along the way. His start was simple: The first thing he tried to draw, at age 3, was a horse. He has no memory of why, except the buried sense that men on horses were important and warranted remembering. At some point in his drawings, Barnes transformed himself into the figure of a unicorn, his own kind of horse, tied to African mythology that he points out "has nothing to do with Tarzan." The unicorn is his symbol for men of color, powerful and playful in subversive ways that harness ancient symbolism to the matinee idols and comics of a postwar American childhood. Later came a sophisticated understanding of painting, of how to layer a surface so it feels like a thick, enterable atmosphere while also reserving the right to break its planes into floating shards.
The first painting Barnes remembers seeing in person involved horses, and was at the Frye, in the first years of the museum's existence. Little Barnes, taking art class there, came face-to-face with a 6.5-foot-long scene of panicked horses, their faces contorted, fleeing a stable on fire. The Adolf Schreyer painting is a classic of the Frye collection. What's worse than the horses you see first are the others trapped behind them that you only notice gradually as you look, glued to the spot. Today, this painting hangs in the next room over from Barnes's paintings, which give that same feeling of the world afire, of real life at stake.
The earliest painting, 1971's Junkie Finds a Broken Mirror and Looks Forward into His Past, depicts a young man in a brown-green haze that stains the entire canvas. Shapes are vaguely recognizable: a table or chair, a door, the mirror. The young man has muddy, inward-turned eyes, and a smudgy older man's face floats ghostly behind him, beyond the wreckage. The visual depth of the scene offers air and hard-won promise. Next to Junkie is something else entirely, almost a prayer of a painting, a Mexican-mural-style scene depicting in a rainbow of soft colors a quartet of women meditatively performing household chores. The mop becomes a flowing river. The 1974 painting is called The Gift.
Barnes shifts styles often. His palette ranges from soft to brash. Sometimes his strokes are stark and textured, bringing to mind Claude Clark, a West Coast Harlem Renaissance–era painter who once stopped by Seattle and noted Barnes's dogged independence. I like best when Barnes blends expressionistic patterning with pigment that seems to sink into the surface, turning the painting smooth but deep, like Junkie. The exception: the stabby strokes of Hater Sitting on a Fence Watching You Walk By (2000).
I have mixed feelings about Barnes's depictions of women, sometimes splayed and threatening, as in From a Whisper to a Scream from 1999–2000. Barnes intends to be an equal-opportunity skewerer of humans. In the squished hallway at the exhibition's start, you're pushed to get closer to a series of 1980s drawings called Masks. There are no masks. Each person has been skinned—even Santa Claus—revealing sinewy horror just beneath the surface. Forced closer, you see they all have claws. The trick, as in Goya or Bosch, is that the horror holds the eye. Barnes's ornate beasts are a combination of Islamic patterning and the practice of lifting the pen as seldom as possible. Humans are animals buzzy with zigzags, chevrons, reverberating liquid lines, spirals.
A self-portrait in that same hallway stands alone: Barnes, clawless, has a unicorn horn. He's a split character, appearing twice, one standing tall and smiling in the direction of the other, who's shrinking a little. Why would Barnes need self-protection? The destruction of the Omowale mural that was on the walls ringing Medgar Evers Pool is just one episode, depicted in the Frye galleries. The Frye also highlights Barnes's career illustrating for Seattle's Afro American Journal in the 1970s. In one drawing, police at a dais pass a gun around to shoot at people on a conveyor belt. The letters on the backs of their shirts spell "black community." In 2005, Barnes's artist son, Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, was brutally beaten by four Seattle police officers who settled to end their trial.
Also at the Frye is Barnes's raw illustration of an American soldier spraying women and children with poison at My Lai; it looks as if he made it as quickly as possible. Barnes was drafted into Vietnam. It's the one thing he cannot speak of when I interview him.
At the Frye, Barnes is having the surreal experience of having old ladies come up to him and tell him they like his work. Here, at his first museum exhibition, the world has come around to him. But he remains his own creation, patron, and best friend, as in his self-portrait. "Everybody likes their ego stroked, so I'm not gonna lie," Barnes said. "It's been pleasant. But I've lived long enough to know there are two to three sides to every coin. I'm not waiting to be discovered. I discovered me a long time ago."
At a table in the sun, he wore a straw fedora, yellow shades, and a baby-blue linen suit. He is an underground royal; his father, a broad and tall man, fought to integrate Seattle's waterfront.
"I'm not saying anything is perfect," he explained. "There's still a lot of ass to be kicked."