Sculptor Robbie Barber's shabby structures are drawn from the agricultural landscape of his North Carolina childhood

At first glance, Robbie Barber's hand-crafted sculpture seems related to Winter's corporate collectibles. Barber's tiny houses are detail-oriented, with ship-lap siding and careful

click to enlarge visart_barber_strike_330jpg
Red Rider, wood, paint, found objects, 2003.
patinas; like Winter, he focuses on imperfect, sagging structures no longer on speaking terms with right angles. But there is a critical difference between the two men: Barber's nostalgia is a rich, funny/sad emotion that doesn't lend itself to commercialization. His shabby structures are drawn not from storybooks but from the agricultural landscape of his North Carolina childhood. While Barber is seduced by the allure of decay, he doesn't ignore the contradictions inherent in fetishizing the past.

One way Barber complicates his work is by placing realistic models of buildings in surreal combinations: A red-roofed tobacco barn is perched atop a rusting stepstool/high chair like a toddler waiting to be fed. A sagging, scarred house rests uneasily on a seatless wheelchair like an old man waiting around to die. In this way, the obvious, reproducible effects of passing time are transformed into human metaphors, which in turn invite the viewer to generalize them further - into portraits not just of people or homes but of a rural way of life that has died.

The sculptor talks about "hidden beauty" in his subjects, of the "subtle nobility in these castles of the mundane." But it's important to note that he isn't interested in how they looked

Through May 11
The Center for Spirituality & the Arts
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when people occupied them. Barber's trailer-homes were sterile, impersonal pieces of tin when they were purchased; the one-room shacks were utilitarian and plain. They are made appealing by neglect, as we see in photos of broken, vine-covered windows and tractors losing their wheels. (Barber's use of the Polaroid transfer technique, which takes an instant-developing photographic marvel and makes it instantly appear decades old, is telling.)

Barber's pieces draw a more ambiguous charm from the haphazard way many rural folk use their dwellings. A series of trailer homes, for instance, are fitted with bizarre ornaments (bowling trophies, toy trucks) that would never be seen in real life but remind us of the way people modify pre-fabricated homes to reflect their own needs and personalities; the iconic models capture the feel of a living trailer park without resorting to the depiction of actual humans. Similarly, a large camper-bed pickup takes another Southern tendency - gun culture, as embodied by once-ubiquitous rifle racks in truck windows - and makes it hilariously literal: The vehicle's hood has a machine gun mounted on it, its rear wheels are replaced by tank treads, and the roof boasts an enormous cannon.

That's not a modification you're likely to see in one of David Winter's tastefully aging cottages. And that, nothing against Winter and his admirers, is one of the differences between neatly executed works of nostalgia and the messy, mine-strewn landscape of art that means something. •

More by John DeFore



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