James Barnett, Video Games Turned Fine Art

Favela by James Barnett.
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James Barnett

is a funny guy. The Scottsdale resident's bio reads: "

I get pretty excited by degradation. Of images, that is."

With that kind of temperament, it's no wonder he turns to unusual subject matter for his fine art paintings. For his exhibition at spec10 Gallery in Scottsdale, he's showcasing a series of works that feature scenery and characters taken straight from video games.

"Fauxvism: Landscapes and Portraits from Video Games" combines the contemporary subject matter with a fauvist style taken from the short-lived post-Impressionist movement led by Henri Matisse in early 20th century France.

The show opens tonight, Thursday, September 16, with a reception from 7 to 9 p.m. and continues through the end of October.

Read on for a little Q&A with Barnett.

Where are you from?
New Rochelle, NY, home of Rob and Laura Petrie of the Dick Van Dyke Show. I moved to Scottsdale about four years ago, from San Francisco.

Why spec10?
They asked!

I'd actually been gearing up for another run at local galleries, getting a show's worth of paintings together, when I got an email from Jonathan from spec10. So most of the show was ready to go; I've spent the last couple of weeks making huge-for-me canvases (4 feet by 5 feet) and painting 'em, to have a couple of big showcase pieces. The two largest
ones are portraits, of Alyx from Half-Life 2 and (female) Commander Shepard from Mass Effect 2.

Will you be at the opening?
Of course! I will be rakishly regaling tales of video game conquests. Or drinking and mumbling.

Dog by James Barnett.
How did you get your idea for these paintings?

I'd just gotten a new video card and was playing

Half-Life 2

and the first

Call of Duty

game and was just struck by the quality of the outdoor light. I was really blown away by how non-plastic things looked; for all the texture work of the walls that game designers had done, they'd never really gotten the light right. It always looked, hmm, thin? Like movie-set lights instead of sunlight.

But in these games, for the first time, I was struck by how much being in-game really felt like walking around outside (albeit with enemies shooting at you).

Which video game systems do you prefer?
I'm strictly a PC gamer, myself, with occasional forays into Nintendo DS games. Of course, if someone wanted to trade an Xbox 360 for a painting ...

What are some of the most inspiring video games?
I could paint scenes from Team Fortress 2 and the Half-Life games forever. Fallout 3 has been endlessly fruitful, too.

Will viewers be able to tell by the title which video game the image comes from?
Only if they've played the game. I try to make sure the paintings work as paintings, even if you don't know the location or the character. And if you do, then it's just a happy little bonus to giggle at.

I sold one painting of the game Team Fortress 2 as a wedding gift, and the buyer asked me to send it to the couple with a note like: "Lisa: please enjoy the painting of a covered bridge. Brad: shhhh." I thought that was about perfect.

Have you received criticisms of your work?
Last summer, the game blogs Kotaku, Joystiq, Offworld, and others all ran articles about me, which led to a spate of posts in gamer forums. A few were pretty negative, and some of those were about the level of your standard YouTube comments -- real knuckle-dragger stuff. Because so much of the attention I was getting was positive, I was able to see the semi-incoherent, profane negative comments as pretty hysterical.

If you could live in a video game, which would it be?
I'm a huge sucker for the post-apocalypse, dating back to the Mad Max movies, I suppose. I probably find the post-apocalyptic games the most fascinating to run around in, but I wouldn't want to live there.

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