Kali Yuga, Hannah Barnes

Hannah Barnes’ watercolors on paper, wood panels, and walls are battlegrounds of pattern and color. Triangles, circles, spots, stripes, and planes in dynamic hues march across the paper in patterns, only to collide and thereby break down these various patterns’ trajectories. The result, in Hannah’s words, is “a stable, harmonious image, and at other times the result is unresolved conflict and visual dissonance.” Hannah’s title for this series, “Kali Yuga,” is the name in Hindu Cosmology for the fourth era of the world marked by “conflict, discord, and strife.” These works are inspired by a 6-week trip to southern India as well as this past year’s world events; as such, the strife evident in the discord between these shapes and colors reflects the complexities and destructive capabilities of structures at work in the world today. It is worth hearing from Hannah herself about the ideas and experiences behind “Kali Yuga.” Read on to learn more about India, color, and how this series is unique: What led you to be interested in India?

My interest in India stems both from family history and from artistic curiosity. My grandfather, Dr. Robert Mayfield, had a fascinating career as a geographer; he conducted much of his research in India, studying urban geography in the Punjab region and in Bangalore. As a kid, I was the recipient of many exotic mementos and souvenirs from my grandparents’ world travels, and for me these gifts were windows into strange, remote worlds. I recall these as some of my earliest experiences of pure wonder. In particular, I recall (and still possess) postcards from India and Turkey featuring reproductions of paintings and textiles. Their intricate, decorative images were unlike anything I had ever seen, and were sites of pure visual pleasure and absorption. I am drawn to abstraction because of experiences like these; part of the aim of my work is to make images that evoke such experiences of wonder, visual absorption, heightened awareness, and contemplation.


Indian miniatures are of particular interest to me. They influence my ideas about pictorial space, which, in the miniature, is often fragmented and non-linear. I am also influenced by these works’ generous use of pattern and geometry as a means of evoking visual contemplation through heightened pictorial intricacy and complexity.


In the last five years, meditation and process have become more central to my studio work. I keep a traditional daily Ashtanga yoga practice that parallels my creative practice. I have been practicing for about eight years, and part of my recent travel to India included the opportunity to study at a yoga institute in Mysore.


You talk a lot about your use of shapes—but what about color? How did you decide to use such vibrant color?

In a previous artist statement, I described my use of color this way –

I see color as both a structural building block and a passageway into subjectivity. In my work, color often works to seduce the viewer and to create a sense of strangeness. It acts optically and performatively, creating fugitive sensations of vibration and push-pull and resulting in subjective experiences such as humor, melancholy, and delight. In the form of pigment suspended in water, color can also act emotionally through the suggestion of saturation, stain, erasure, and trace, to conjure themes of desire, pleasure and regret.

I think that statement applies to this work – I believe that color works on us in an almost pre-cognitive manner. Color is experiential; it acts on our optic nerve and causes direct sensation. We experience it viscerally first, well before we can process it cognitively.That’s why color is a passageway – it can help us access meanings that are not strictly rational, and it overflows our capacity to know or understand experience. It’s powerful because it eludes understanding.  We bring countless associations to color, which makes it utterly unpredictable.


When I make color choices, often I am balancing formal strategies with an idea about an emotive or psychological effect I would like to achieve. For example, intense hot pinks work really well to create focal points and spatial tension, but at the same time they can be discordant, obnoxious, and tacky. I love when both can happen at the same time. I was challenged by my experiences of color in India. It’s a place of contrasts and contradiction. All around my apartment in Mysore, new residences were being constructed in concrete. The finished homes were ornately shaped and painted with intense colors – fuschia, orange, aqua, cobalt, maroon, yellow. The homes in progress were pits of brown mud and gray cement. Construction workers wore dingy grays and beiges and worked in dusty, dry bare feet. Women would pass them on the street wrapped in luminous orange and green and gold saris. I learned about irreconcilable contrast. I think there is a bit of that at work in these recent paintings.

How do these pieces fit within your trajectory as an artist? Do you see them as the logical result of your past work, or as something new, even surprising? (Or something in between?)

While still a clear evolution of previous bodies of work, this series is a bit of a special project, since it is a direct response to a particular experience abroad, in shapes from Indian miniatures and other artworks I had observed. It was exciting to refresh my store of geometric tropes and be challenged to form images in new ways. For example, I learned about Rangoli Drawing, which is a style of decorative mandala-like floor drawing created in chalk; this gave me new ideas about how to construct compositions. Rangoli technique is all grid-based, and if you look closely, you can see a grid-like matrix of dots underlying each of my large drawings in this series.


I also gained a renewed interest in the physicality of painting materials, which was a bit of a surprise for me. In India, I took a painting workshop and learned a bit about traditional glues, fabrics, and other painting materials used in Indian painting. I have since been reconsidering how I might approach canvas, linen, paper, and other traditional painting supports with greater sensitivity and material presence.