Humour, wonder, & fantasy

Craig Francis Power on local screenprinter and cartoonist Jennifer Barrett.

I had a terrible childhood.

Without going into too much detail about it, let me just say it had to do with my father being a drunk. I didn’t know that that’s what he was when I was a kid, I just thought he was alternately pissed off or really tired all the time, depending on whether it was morning or night. Needless to say, it sucked.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered a secret escape hatch for the really bad days, an escape hatch that laid the foundation for my eventual studying of art and literature: making comic books. I’d generally hide out in my bedroom and wait for the tumult to die down, whiling away the hours with pencils, pens, paint, crayons or anything else that seemed like it might transport me out of what was a pretty lonely and confusing existence.

Many artists will say that their interest in art began in childhood, that drawing or painting was a tool by which they felt they could escape the unhappiness or boredom of their day-to-day lives by creating a world on the blank page in which they could submerge themselves.

There is something like this in the prints and paintings of Jennifer Barrett. Barrett, who graduated in 2003 with a BFA (Visual) from Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook, focuses on the extrapolation of blind contour drawings and the modification of autobiographical comics. Often, single panels from Barrett’s comics (many of which can be seen in each issue of The Scope, and in her weekly on-line comic, Werebears and Only Children ( or other filmic source material, such as old movies and photographs, are blown up into either mono, or duotone paintings and prints.

There is also a fair amount of Dungeons & Dragons imagery thrown into the mix, which, it seems obvious to point out, reiterates the continuing theme of escape into a more beautiful, enchanting and mysterious world beyond the boundaries of our own.

In her poem Ariel, Sylvia Plath referred to the Angel’s “rare, random descent” as a metaphor for the transformative moments or epiphanies that made life, for her, worth living (at least for a while.) It is these seemingly small and/or simple moments, like the small simple form and content of Barrett’s comics, prints and paintings, that can provoke a similar transformation in the viewers of her work.

What strikes me about these works is that their apparently innocent presentation is a cover for a far more sophisticated, heart-wrenching and lonely take on what it means to be alive. In her comic work, even while there is often a punch-line or gag or otherwise funny situation, Barrett presents her simply drawn characters coming to grips with the loss of their innocence, and the knowledge of their own isolation from the rest of humanity. One gets the sense that these characters don’t fit into the mundane, de-humanizing modern world and take relief from it through whatever small bits of humour, wonder and fantasy they can find.

But it isn’t simply nostalgia that this work addresses. Nowhere is there evidence of the artist pining for some glorious Garden of Eden type of place that exists only in some sepia-tinted past or, for that matter, in her imagination. What the work does address specifically is the realization that the world was just as fucked up when we were children as it is now, that we were well aware of how fucked up it was, and that today, we only have different strategies for dealing with it. Childhood strategies involved play. Adult strategies involve repression, anti-depressants, and drugs.

Due to Barrett’s drawing upon time-based mediums for her inspiration, much of her paintings and prints confront the viewer with the idea of constancy and change. If it’s true, as Georges Bataille suggests, that our existential dread arises from the conflicting ideas of the continuous and dis-continuous, then the underlying tension in Barrett’s work makes perfect sense. In other words, we’re dead meat, b’ys—so we must ask how and why meaningfulness can exist in the face of our own mortality.

I know, I know, Dear Reader, pretty heavy-handed stuff, I agree. But what can I say? I’m only glad, and it does my heart a world of good, to see that there are young artists like Jennifer Barrett here in Newfoundland who are exploring territory beyond that of the dominant cultural orthodoxy.

Barrett is the current Visiting Artist at St. Michael’s Printshop at 72 Harbour Drive, and has work included an upcoming four person show at The Leyton Gallery in May. Do please check out the work, you won’t be disappointed.