NEW YORK, NEW YORK—Barnaby Conrad III is best known as the author of such urbane books as Absinthe: History in a Bottle and The Martini, but in his first one-man show of paintings in Manhattan, “The Life Aquatic,” his piscatorial subjects are straight from the wild. M Sutherland Fine Arts, which specializes in contemporary art from China, is branching out to show its first American artist.
Among the sixteen paintings on display at M. Sutherland Fine Arts, is a 6 x 5 foot canvas of a larger-than-life trout leaping over an Adirondack lake at sunset. While echoing Winslow Homer’s watercolors, the painting’s subject is a spawning male brook trout the size of a shark. The fish floats above his native terrain in an almost surreal manner, but there’s an oddly vulnerable look in his eye, perhaps due to the acid rain that has damaged fish populations in this region. In other canvases, an Atlantic salmon leaps from an Icelandic river, a zeppelin-like triggerfish floats over an Hawaiian coastline, and a monstrous 3-foot-long Mongolian taimen swallows a trout. Nature appears alternately serene or nasty. All are creatures that Conrad, an avid fly fisherman, has caught himself on his various trips around the globe, to Iceland, Mexico or Mongolia.
Jonathon Keats, the art critic for San Francisco magazine writes, “Barnaby Conrad III paints taimen, tarpon and trout with the conviction of someone who knows them. More than scientifically accurate, these are beguiling portraits of individual fish whose personalities he's interrogated with a rod and captured with a brush."
Yet these are not just paintings for fishermen. “Between these sixteen paintings there are as many variations of perception and mood as there are creatures portrayed,” writes Leigh Seippel in the exhibition catalogue essay. “The concept of Life Aquatic is wide, and so Conrad tends to spread his deceptive realism beyond the bounds of a sporting scene.”
Private art dealer Richard Polsky, author of I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon), says, “Conrad’s new pictures of marine life are easy to enter because of our familiarity with the subjects, but are hard to leave because their sublime beauty won’t let go.”
The 57-year-old San Francisco-based artist became fascinated by blue crabs after recently spending time on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. What the lobster is to Maine the blue crab is to this region. After catching them in a tidal marsh, Conrad began to paint the crabs from life using a big brush on large canvases. As he listened to jazz in his seaside studio, a looser painting style evolved. In one 5 x 4 foot canvas an enormous male blue crab appears to be either courting or attacking a red-clawed female. Swirling around this over-sized crustacean passion play is an abstract tidal current reminiscent of Brice Marden. “Chet Baker and Miles Davis helped me paint these pictures,” says the artist. “The crabs are beautiful, savage, and sad at the same time. Like most fish around the world, they’ve also suffered from industrial pollution or over-fishing. I’m concerned for their future.”
Martin Muller of Modernism Gallery, who represents the artist in San Francisco, comments, “Existential issues strangely permeate these paintings. The crab pictures somehow echo Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream,’ updating it to our zeitgeist with its ecological concerns.” He adds, “The ‘Life Aquatic’ series is an intriguing body of work. The narrative angle of all these pictures remind us that Conrad is also a writer and world traveler.”
Barnaby Conrad III was born in San Francisco in 1952, eldest son of portrait painter and best-selling author, Barnaby Conrad, Jr. and architect Dale Crichton. In 1975, Conrad earned a BA in fine arts from Yale, where he studied painting with William Bailey, Lester Johnson, and Bernard Chaet, as well as illustration from Maurice Sendak. Instead of painting in a New York garret, he became an art journalist, serving as a founding editor of Art World in the 1970s and senior editor of Horizon in 1979-80. “I met all the New York artists at the time, from Warhol and Rosenquist to Romare Bearden and Philip Guston. And they’ve had an influence on me.”
In 1982, Conrad moved to Paris and became an adventure-travel writer. Magazines from Forbes Life to Condé Nast Traveler sent him to fish in England, ski the Alps, ride trains across India, and to float over Germany in a hot-air balloon. He also wrote his first book Absinthe: History In a Bottle, (1988), followed by 10 more non-fiction books, including the on-the-road travel memoir, Ghost Hunting in Montana (1994), and the sinful classics, The Martini (1995) and The Cigar (1996). Yet all the while he was drawing or water-coloring, whether sketching a temple monkey in Benares, India, or a brown trout on a Montana riverbank. “I began painting in earnest when I returned to San Francisco in 1991,” he says. The first oil paintings included Pop images of martinis, Lucky Strike packs, and cigars. “These hobbies inspired my early books and pictures,” he adds, “but fishing is my most passionate pastime, so that’s what I paint.”
In San Francisco, Conrad’s work has appeared in twenty group shows at the Bohemian Club and three exhibitions at Modernism Gallery. The special exhibition at M. Sutherland Fine Arts is Conrad’s first solo show and is accompanied by a 34-page catalogue with an essay by Leigh Seippel.