In November 2016, Prey was commissioned by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) to paint a vast watercolor of Building 6, an addition of over 120,000 square feet of exhibition space, which opened Memorial Day 2017. Her painting would depict part of the interior of Building 6 in its raw, un-renovated state as a historic mill, before the space transformed into long-term exhibition galleries for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Jenny Holzer, James Turrell, Laurie Anderson, Louise Bourgeois, Prey herself, and others. With the Building 6 addition MASS MoCA became the largest contemporary art museum in the country. Fittingly, Prey’s completed portrait of Building 6’s interior is the world’s largest watercolor painting.
Exhibition Catalogue for Borrowed Light at The Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, MA
Artist Barbara Ernst Prey spent much of the winter of 2018 and spring of 2019 at Hancock Shaker Village, finding and painting the light. Prey continues a tradition at the Village of respectful collaboration between Shaker values and the art world as part of an ongoing program that invites artists of today, such as Maya Lin and Jenny Holzer, to reflect on the living legacy of the Shakers. Each responds through his or her own creative lens to the rich Shaker history embodied by the Village’s archives, buildings, and grounds.
How do you paint an ethos? Poetry and drama are natural media for this challenge (think of Greek tragedy or epic). Music and dance hover close to ritual expression (gospel, Bach’s passions, even Doris Humphrey’s masterful 1930 dance work, The Shakers). Setting aside overt narratives drawn from religious sources (the acres of nativities, depositions, Madonnas, etc. in the Louvre alone), painting is an unusual medium for expressing a belief system. One of the reasons that Barbara Ernst Prey’s bold and eloquent new project is so noteworthy is the uncanny accomplishment of putting an ethos on paper visually.
Charles A. Riley II, PhD is the director of the Nassau Museum of Art
Barbara Ernst Prey’s career is thirty-five years young; her lifelong learning continues unabated. “We look and we learn and we incorporate and then we put our own mark, world view, and experience in to the work,” muses Prey. The artist continues to take the watercolor medium, which has an august role in the history of American art, to innovative—yet traditionally rooted—places. Looking as well as seeing, she searches out new vistas, compositions, and ideas in the landscapes and environments that are her home.
Her new painting for NASA, Shuttle Discovery: Return to Flight, was on an easel, waiting to be unveiled, when Barbara Ernst Prey discussed her life and work with Paul Lieberman,the roving cultural correspondent of the Los Angeles Times. This is drawn from that January 18, 2006 conversation at the Williams Club in New York.
Water. Fishermen. A life of the sea. These subjects, the focus of Barbara Ernst Prey’s most recent body of work, took on new meaning to the world during the weeks I first came to know these paintings shortly after a deadly tsunami slammed into the shores of South Asia in late December 2004.
Fortunate readers encounter books that even as they present “conclusions” have the encouraging ability to spur further thoughts leading to independent epiphanies. In a similarly paradoxical way, the unquestionably “finished”, indubitably major paintings of Barbara Ernst Prey never exhaust the pictorial possibilities of the landscape.