The sad-eyed and pallid-skinned people that haunt Renato Barja Jr.’s canvases with their hangdog expressions are nowhere to be found in New Departure, a solo exhibition explicit in its desire to break with the past. Gone too are the large sweeping canvases and the sculptures that used to accompany each painting. In their place are small pieces, a few of them no bigger than a sheet of paper, divided into two series informally called “Works from a Room” and “Works from the Road.”
This exhibition comes after a personal loss that left Barja exhausted and burned out, pushing him to retreat further into himself. New Departure documents his internal exile and the resulting hyper-awareness of his immediate surroundings. “Works from a Room” were all painted from the vantage point of a bed—not one specific bed in one specific room but always a bed in a room—represented in the gallery by the lone sculpture installed in the middle of the space. From here, it is possible to track the recumbent artist’s eye and the mundane objects that arrested his attention: here, a television set; there, an exhaust fan; yonder, a rolling chair; somewhere, an electrical outlet.
Despite how austere these canvases are, one can glean from the details depicted by Barja what kind of room birthed each painting. A slightly askew decorative wall piece, the benign kind favored by interior designers, hanging above a table lamp inhabits a different interior from an oxygen tank or a piece of pork fat left on a plate. And just like that, with a few carefully chosen artifacts, Barja moves from hotel to hospital.
The other half of New Departure consists of scenes from Barja’s solitary bus and bike rides. Rusted galvanized sheets and floodwater-stained walls are accompanied by two triptychs: The Lonely Lane and The Factory, which both feature terse messages that take on existential import when read in the context of the exhibition.
The first, a gray-green smear of a highway seen through a window, is punctuated by a yellow road sign saying “SLOW” (“DOWN” is obscured but legible). The second, an abandoned building bordering on geometric abstraction, sees the word “FUGAZI” scrawled on a concrete wall. The etymology of “fugazi” is disputed but the one that resonated with Barja the most is from the English word “fugacious,” meaning “fleeting, fading quickly, transient.” (Fugacious, in turn, has Latin roots.) The factory was a fixture that he took for granted during his daily commute until the day it closed. What used to be a busy place enveloped in the sweat of human labor became a silent structure devoid of life, save for vermin.
The signs told Barja to slow down since life is fleeting. “Nothing really matters,” he says. “You have to survive but you also have to be alive.” There is a difference, after all, between surviving and living.
The introspective and contemplative mood of New Departure is mirrored in the dimensions of the works. In addition to conveying an added sense of isolation and intimacy, the small canvases changed the way Barja worked: the loose gestures of yore gave way to “more intense, more controlled, more disciplined” strokes. In a tight space, he added, details are magnified, framing and composition become more personal.
Despite the change in physical scale, New Departure still feels and looks like Barja. The cool palette and the occasional bursts of color remain, as does the melancholia. Leading up to New Departure, Barja was struggling to find the stories he wanted to tell. His previous outward-looking exhibitions revolved around ordinary people—a butcher, a construction worker, a commuter— with detours to the ignored underbelly of society. The epiphany that led to New Departure is simple, says Barja: “Everything is here. The answer is what is around you.” — ll, August 2017