Daniel Barrow

at ThreeWalls, through March 19

A few years ago I spent an hour at a UIC graduate-student show at Gallery 400 that made me feel I was shopping at some boutique in heaven. What pulled me in was a video installation by Kirsten Stoltmann, Boys and Flowers, featuring slow-motion footage of attractive art-scene lads skateboarding back and forth on a mini half-pipe, faded between hyperreal shots of flowers. This come-hither montage was accompanied by the dreamy music of local post-rock band Joan of Arc, whose looped song became the backdrop for all the colorful, melancholy, tongue-in-cheek artwork in the exhibit. Basking in the glow of audiovisual appropriations, I found myself thinking there aren’t many shows at once so attractive, clever, and haunting.

Daniel Barrow’s lush illustrations at ThreeWalls, a brand-new gallery at 119 N. Peoria, provide a similar experience and add sardonic wit, surreal mystery, and formal elegance. His work is showcased in various formats: framed drawings, balsa airplanes, and, most striking, 30-minute “performed animations” using an overhead projector. Barrow reads aloud from a script he’s written and, with the aid of assistants, accompanies the narrative visually, moving the layers in a stack of images by hand. The stories relate dreamlike coming-of-age experiences with an odd, erudite sense of humor. The experience suggests 19th-century magic lantern parlor shows, often aimed at chil-dren. Just as those projected stills were printed on glass slides, usually made from paintings or lithographs, these transparencies are based on Barrow’s drawings in pencil, ink, and watercolor.

Barrow–who lives in Winnipeg–had a monthlong residency at ThreeWalls, during which time he completed new work and performed three of his pieces. At the show’s opening he gave performances of his new Looking for Love in the Hall of Mirrors. Barrow has returned to Canada, but video documentation of another performed animation can be seen at the gallery. And one installation, Snow Globe, gives visitors a sense of the performances. Here Barrow combines a recorded monologue about hands (taken from a statement by Helen Keller) with low-contrast video footage superimposed on simple but ingenious live animation: a small electric fan blows translucent plastic objects around a clear dish of water sitting on an overhead projector. Their motion is reproduced on a wall and framed by the silhouette of a hand both painted and projected. This ingenious, beautifully textured piece is mesmerizing.

Barrow’s stories suggest a lonely, cloistered existence–perhaps a Victorian childhood shrouded by illness and charged with pubescent uncertainties about gender. There’s the hint of an AIDS subtext, and the innocent fever-dream delirium recalls Lewis Carroll and the early-20th-century comic strips of protosurrealist Winsor McCay. Barrow’s muted-to-monochromatic palette, sensitive strokes, and delicate images evoke art nouveau prints and turn-of-the-20th-century fantasy illustrations. In both his still and moving pieces, he distorts and mingles parts of human and animal bodies and fuses them with objects in nostalgic settings, both domestic and pastoral. Facial features shift around and between faces, images appear and disappear in mirrors and on canvases, and the words on tombstones and book covers fly in various directions. Elegant flourishes and flat compositions give these hallucinatory scenes unity, as elements of furniture, dishes, cats, wallpaper, and children bleed fancifully together.

Barrow’s drawings are splendid in themselves, but the way he combines them in different formats is what makes his work unique. The crucifixionlike printed tableaux on his small balsa airplane models–Dying Bird Plane, Alligator Plane, and Sleepwalker Plane–are simultaneously fragile and overwrought. In the overhead pieces, he creates shimmering moire effects through the optical interplay of representational images and abstract areas. Overall, true to its romantic aesthetic, Barrow’s work implies that craft is paramount, evident in the artist’s touch. In the performances, the eye-candy precision of the drawings, the elaborate creativity of the animation, and the strange, serene scenes stand in marked contrast to the magnified awkwardness of moving hands, transparencies being slid around or taken on and off, and images ranging in and out of focus. Coming off partly as a spoof of clunky Flash animations, Barrow’s irregular movements contribute to the general sense of adolescent queasiness. The roughness of his performances reminded me of the similarly funny, sad, and unreal films of Chicago animator Jim Trainor, in which transparent layers, line drawings, and still images combine to tell slow-paced, spare, well-scored stories.

But it’s in the pacing and scoring that Barrow loses me a bit. His scripted narratives can be busy, trying too hard to make visual and literary allusions. In Looking for Love in the Hall of Mirrors, Barrow’s persona spends much of his time describing his artwork as a derivative melange and listing his influences (Antoine Watteau, Henry Darger, Cindy Sherman, writers Quentin Crisp and Florence King). Barrow is an entertaining writer, and his orchestrations of the images are masterful–but this much verbal information distracts from the visual content. The shrill synthesizer sound track accompanying the two performances I saw might have been intended to relate the pieces to contemporary children’s-book slide shows. But they just add to the aural clutter at best and at worst lend the work an unfortunate infomercial quality.

That may have been why I was most moved by the work that strayed farthest from the do-it-yourself approach. Displayed on a small wall-mounted TV monitor equipped with headphones is a music video Barrow made using his per-formed transparency animations. The video is for “A Miracle,” a lovely song by the Hidden Cameras, a Toronto band reminiscent of the Smiths. In the video Barrow amply demonstrates the unique charm of his medium, bringing words in and out of focus and rotating a disc of images over a still background using his hand. These manipulations are balanced by the video’s clean edits, which foreground the images themselves. As in the UIC show, where the pop music smoothed its rough edges and made the experience sort of cinematic, the music here allows the images to exist in the nonlinear, associative realm of montage. You don’t have to connect the words and pictures the way you do with Barrow’s semiplotted, semipoetic narratives.

In everything from Barrow’s flowing brushwork to his retro graphic look and magic-realist confessional melancholy, a strong connection can be made to independent or alternative comics. Aspects of Barrow’s work are as exciting as Chris Ware’s comparably ornate, nostalgic, mysterious, gloomy, and funny work, in particular Ware’s recently reissued Quimby the Mouse comics. Like Ware at his best, Barrow ravishes the beautiful surface, making the most of our child-fixated narcissistic androgyny without losing the lighthearted approach absent from supposedly deep, neosincere alternative comics.