Colorful both in conception and in its actual hues, Macena Barton’s fantasy painting envisions an outer-space landscape of steep volcanic mountains rising from a golden sea. Silhouetted against a sky illuminated by glowing suns, radiant spaceships, and staff-like shooting rockets, tiny human forms gesticulate impotently. Seemingly gigantic by comparison are the heads incorporated into the mountains, whose jagged surfaces are alive with exotic flowers and creatures and a dark-skinned hand gripping the rock.
From the beginning of her career, Barton infused her paintings with elements of surrealism and fantasy, notably the auras with which she surrounded figures in her portraits of the early 1930s. Continuously evolving in her subject matter and style, in the late 1950s and early 1960s she created a series of some dozen fantasy images, several of which she exhibited in members’ shows at the Arts Club of Chicago. This work is one of several clearly inspired by the burgeoning Space Age, particularly the popular culture of space fantasy manifested in pulp fiction, illustration, and cinema, among other mediums. The 1950s saw intense public interest both in UFOs and in the first orbital launches, culminating in the first launch of a human into space in 1961, the year Barton painted this work.
In several of her space fantasies, Barton continued the preoccupation with self-portraiture long manifested in her work. Here, she included her own distinctive profile, with notably bronzed skin and heavy eye makeup, among the faces incorporated into the central mountain form. The male head to her right may represent Francis Robert McNeilan, whom Barton married in 1953: it bears a reasonable resemblance to a man posed with Barton in a pair of photo-booth snapshots from the 1950s or 1960s found among family photos in the artist’s papers (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution). While this and other faces in the painting exhibit a death-like pallor as they gaze mournfully, even anxiously, skyward, Barton projects a collected calm as she contemplates a dream world she has imagined into existence.
Wendy Greenhouse, PhD
Donated by M. Christine Schwartz to the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, Illinois, in 2023