Barry Masteller: Inside the Studio
Article by Caroline Haller
Barry Masteller is an American artist and was born in California in 1945. Over five decades of painting, Masteller has worked with photography, oil, acrylic, paper and watercolor. Masteller has exhibited his work prolifically and his works are in private, public and museum collections all over California and the Southwestern United States.
Currently based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Masteller paints the natural world around him. Masteller’s abstracted paintings of the New Mexico landscape observe the light and atmosphere in an abstracted manner.
In the last few years, Masteller has been experimenting with adding figures into his work. Six newer images featuring these figures are for sale on Art Dealer St. Buy them here.
Closer, Forecast, Levitation, Moving Around, Red Sock, and Within Reason combine Masteller’s dynamic backgrounds with the human form in motion. (Figure 1)
Figure 1. Barry Masteller, Moving Around, Acrylic on Wood, 2020, 11 x 24 inches.
In blues, yellows and tiny strokes of red and white, Masteller captures the motion in a standing body and overlays it with geometric symbols. (Figure 2)
Figure 2. Barry Masteller, Within Reason, Acrylic on Wood, 2020, 11 x 24 inches.
I caught up with Masteller to ask him about his studio practice and the new addition of figures in his work! Read on for the full interview.
Can you speak about your studio or the environments in which you create art? Are there tools that are essential for your creation, outside from the materials and paintbrushes?
For many years my studio and workshop were in my home and property in rural northern California. The property is full of nature, lots of costal oaks and wildlife. After leaving California in 2015, I lived in New York City for about a year. From there I set up a new studio workshop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, located in a light industrial park. The contrast between the spaces couldn’t be more different, from rural to the big city to small city within a years’ time. I brought all my shop tools with me, table saw, power tools, all for wood working: as I love building frames and working with wood. Living and working in Albuquerque has had a definite impact on my world view and how I approach my work. Being here reminds me a lot of my years growing up and working in Los Angeles, I think it’s reawakened a lot of feeling and observations from the past. This has all found its way into my work in an interpretive and expressive way. Older references in the landscape and architecture have been re-interpreted and laid down in new ways leading to refreshed concepts and directions that I am continually excited about.
What is one experience that has been invaluable to you, as an artist?
‘One experience’ that’s difficult as I feel so many. I guess if I had to boil it down to one, I would have to go back to my childhood… Learning to be alone. As a child I spent a lot of time by myself, often exploring new and different places as I rode my bike around Hollywood and the Silver Lake district in LA where I grew up. I think it really set the stage for me as an artist. The artist must spend a lot of time alone with the work. Discoveries are made in the work itself through critical thinking, editing and being alone. Being alone with oneself is invaluable to the process.
You’ve mentioned you felt as if painting was a language telling a story. What story do you feel like your art has told over the last five decades? How has it been told?
I first started painting in oils when I was sixteen, I had a very limited pallet; yellow ochre, burnt sienna, raw umber, terra verde, black and white, no primary colors at all. This pallet was not by choice, but the colors had been given to me as a gift. I did two small paintings. The first one was an intuitive abstract and the other a realistic landscape. Crude as these paintings were, they taught me where this journey would eventually lead. I have always felt that my work is fundamentally intuitive landscape or at least landscape based, at its basic language. The story comes in the doing and in the discovery and the critical process of interpretation. I do this through abstraction or an abstraction of landscape. I don't subscribe to the idea of completely nonobjective painting; once you place a horizontal line, form or delineation within the picture plane it automatically becomes landscape, you can’t get away from it, it's in the DNA. All painting is a form of visual poetry. A story begins with a line, draw a horizontal line across the canvas and it becomes a horizon. From there the story unfolds even if the line disappears. It's a beautiful thing.
Does your work in conservation and restoration of historical paintings bleed over into your art? If so, how?
It does or did. I stopped doing painting restoration many years ago and as a result my work has moved more and more away from interpretive landscape and more back towards intuitive abstraction. A lot of my restoration work was on early California landscape painting. Many of the works suffered from surface damage causing holes, tears and missing paint. Repairing this involved a lot of filling, matching canvas and brush mark texture and finally in-painting to match the missing area with the surrounding areas. In order to do this, the areas had to be magnified, filling my view completely. When one looks at a realistic painting this close up all you see is abstraction, colors flowing into other colors and textures. It’s like magic…what you see is not what you see, because when you step back, it’s a landscape again. I also spent some time working on several tonalist works that I was technically intrigued by. I studied the technique and began to paint my own interpretation using the property of my home as a model, plein air style. This actually started a long-lasting series of paintings I called 'Earth and Sky' that I explored for many years to its conclusion.
How has living in New Mexico inspired your art? What natural forms have been inspirational?
New Mexico is vast, visually the open landscape is like the ocean for me and sometime when I miss seeing the Pacific every day, I look at the desert and its vastness. The things that stand out for me are the small, lonely buildings surrounded by sand and low vegetation. Juniper trees and tumble weeds. I enjoy painting this as I often go back to these subjects in my work. When I first moved here, I set out to do a series of small works based on the land and sky, they became my New Mexico series. I was looking at some of these paintings recently and I saw a lot of Diebenkorn’s New Mexico paintings in some of them, the land defiantly rubs off on you, but you have to first let it speak.
When did you start adding figures to your artworks again? What was the motivation behind this?
It’s hard for me to say when I started with the figure, I can recall some very early paintings I did that involved the figure. I travel and have lived in New York City off and on over the years and I love watching people, in the park, on the subway, walking down the street in groups or alone. On one occasion I had an opportunity to stay at the Four Seasons Hotel high above 57th street. I had my 35mm with me and took a ton of photographs of the street below and all of the surrounding buildings. When I returned to California, I looked the photos over and began to do some small sketches from them. One thing led to another, and I was off on a new series I called ‘Boulevard’ all of the paintings were of architecture and people or figures in situ.
Can you speak about the figures, poses, symbols or shapes that are present in the works listed on Art Dealer Street (Closer, Forecast, Levitation, Moving Around, Red Sock, and Within Reason)?
The more recent figure paintings are of the lone figure within the landscape. For me these paintings are more autobiographical and personal. The lone figure is not a lonely figure but an individual, alone within the landscape, a part of it, incorporated. The poses are about individuality, each has its own persona and a different role to play as part of a greater whole.
I often see us; as humankind separating ourselves from our earth and nature, more and more as time goes on. I want to show in this work that we are not separate from nature but an integral part of it, that everything we do as individuals affects the world around us. Natural forces are always at play, and we are part of that play just not always conscious of it. I like to think of the symbols and lines that move in and out of the figure as communication with the life force that’s part of us all… an awareness and recognition.