Among the final paintings Ernie Barnes ever made, Mentors encapsulates the artist’s belief that intergenerational knowledge was the cornerstone of community. A row of obediently seated children in a uniform of blue jeans and white cotton t-shirts gazes upward at a huddled assembly of elders. Some faces are left unfinished, with colorful circles standing in for fully fleshed out visages. A nod to conceptual art strategies, the gesture also reinforces the ideology of valuing the collective over the individual. In an overt demonstration of reverence, the boys tuck their hands between their kneeling knees. By stark contrast with the docile boys, the men strike poses of cool confidence. Feet splayed, hips cocked, arms akimbo––the quintet might be a group of dancers, religious zealots, or athletes cloaked by suits.
Indeed, Barnes’s longtime studio assistant recollected that in early iterations of Mentors, the group wore basketball uniforms. Barnes’s formative years were spent playing professional football as an offensive guard in the NFL; before that, he was a star on his college and high school teams. His athletic career cemented the import of listening to coaches and collaborating with teammates about strategy. Citing a gametime huddle, where decisions about the next play or insights into the other team’s strengths and weakness were shared, Barnes recollects a pivotal moment of group cooperation. While he always emphasized that he was an artist first, the ethos of sportsmanship and the bodily attunement encouraged by his years nevertheless informed his paintings. His artistic mentor Ed Wilson, a sculpture instructor at North Carolina Central University gave him lasting advise on how to bridge his athletic cognizance with visual representation: “(Wilson) told me to pay attention to what my body felt like in movement. Within that elongation, there’s a feeling, an attitude and expression. I hate to think had I not played sports what my work would look like.” Barnes’s mastery of physical movement underpinned is on full display in Mentors, where the rhythmic tempo of the mentors is matched by the staid surveillance of a group of aspiring youths––patiently awaiting the sage wisdom, self-possession, and comradery of their cultural guides.
Acrylic on canvas
Artwork: 60 x 48 in. (152.4 x 121.92 cm.)
2020 Acquired from Estate. Private Collection, Maryland
Year of Creation