An Abstract Perceiver of the World: Barry Elkanick’s Labyrinths

By Rachel Vogel

Somewhat inexplicably, mysteriously, and as it turns out, fortuitously, upon hearing the title of this exhibition, “Proceed to the Nearest Exit,” my mind conjured up an image of circuitous hallways and tortuous passages, a glowing ember exit sign not far off in the distance, but its nearness an illusion, the end point of a snaking and meandering route. “A labyrinth in which all men would become lost,”[i] as Borges’s narrator Dr. Yu Tsan describes in the 1941 short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Fortuitous, because threaded through my later conversations with Barry was a shared appreciation of magical realism, and in particular, Borges and his labyrinths.

In the story, an attempt to escape a British agent brings our narrator, himself a spy for the Germans, to the home of Stephen Albert. Albert invites him to see the garden of forking paths, the life’s work of Tsan’s ancestor Ts’ui Pên. While long assumed to be a maze or puzzle, lost to time, or never completed to begin with, Albert reveals that Ts’ui Pên’s labyrinth had existed all along in a chaotic nonsensical manuscript. This novel contains an infinite story—a world that presents every possible outcome simultaneously: “In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of  the almost inextricable Ts’ui Pên, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.”[ii]

Barry’s work, in its own way, also contains such multitudes. His working process is affective, somatic. With a canvas laid flat in the grass in his yard, Barry relies on the internal relationships that form in the thick texture of paint that swirls and sticks and begins to find its place. There is an artistic hand, certainly, but his rich and sumptuous forms are in a sense self-generating—reflecting and registering their own pulses and drives. Like Ts’ui Pên, he manages an authorial voice that is at the same time self-effacing; infinite contingent futures are preserved rather than eliminated. They call upon the viewer to reflect, each subjective experience contributing to the boundless narrative contained within the layers and folds of paint. The works turn outward, containing in their quiet contemplative way the impression of every encounter. They are, like Yu Tsan expresses “Secret, busy and multiform in other dimensions of time.”[iii]

The sculptural stairs throughout the space heighten this engagement—manipulating the environment and activating the space to reinforce the human scale of the works. They play at the border of approachability and inaccessibility. The steps invite the viewer into the world of the works, but stacked and flipped, they are the dead ends of a labyrinth, invoking you to turn around, to spend more time here. 

Barry’s application of paint on canvas is an act of total self-assertion, but it evades the raw masculine ethos of action painting. There is no domineering affirmation of ego through gesture, rather there is instinct. Barry manifests Borges’ words: “I felt myself to be, for an unknown period of time, an abstract perceiver of the world.”[iv] The fleshy rose hues, pastel grays, and bulbous impasto create a softness and sensuousness. Barry’s liberal use of pink evokes an “exorable process of transformation,”[v] as Barbara Nemitz describes in “Pink—The Exposed Color.” She continues, “Pink is subversive and revealing. The ambivalence of the color pink results from the desire to establish harmony between the contradictory factors of social norms and personal feelings. Pink, this vastly underestimated everyday color, touches many of the unspoken things that move people…In a certain sense, pink is a generous color.”[vi] Barry’s works embodies this spirit of generosity—they reach out and attempt to share an intimate, personal journey.

The starting point of this exhibition was to imagine a utopian vision for a solo show of Barry’s work. The traits Barry emphasized—establishing a spiritual experience or relationship between the audience and the work, exploring themes of contemplation and reflection—demonstrate the generous, infinite excess of his artworks if we as an audience are willing to trace these labyrinths with him.

[i] “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in Labyrinths: selected stories & other writings, Jorge Luis Borges (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2007), 23.
Borges, 26.
Borges, 28.
Borges, 23.
Barbara Nemitz, “Pink—The Exposed Color,” in Pink: the exposed color in contemporary art and culture, ed. Barbara Nemitz and Hideto Fuse (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2006), 28.
Nemitz, 41.