Barbara Schreiber describes her paintings as a juxtaposition between “pretty pictures and ugly subjects.” It’s a contrast that is highlighted in her latest series, Domestic Disturbances, opens at UNC Charlotte’s Storrs Gallery on March 15 and runs through April 18. There will be a reception at the gallery on March 22, and Schreiber will host an artist talk on April 11.
The works present a subversion of domestic bliss, placing the viewer as an observer of impending natural chaos and destruction. The series’ namesake painting, for instance, depicts a silhouette of a couple arguing in their home as the surrounding trees outside become engulfed in flames. Likewise, in “Eminent Domain,” a trio of coyotes surrounds a home, which has two living room couches set ablaze.
The scenarios are unpleasant, but Schreiber illustrates them using bright, vibrant colors. It’s an unintentional framing that has long been part of her artwork.
“I feel like even from childhood, I was always doing these cheery drawings of unpleasant situations,” says Schreiber, who will give an artist lecture on April 11. “I probably could find a childhood drawing in a box somewhere of a picnicking couple being menaced by a giant ant. That’s one of those things that I didn’t decide to work that way; it’s part of the way I am constituted.”
Like much of Schreiber’s work, Domestic Disturbances arose from her interest in the tension between residential and commercial expansion and the natural world. Her penchant for using imagery of fire and fleeing animals reflects a concern for the harm that humans can inflict on the environment, particularly in high-risk areas that aren’t necessarily suited for modern-day development.
“The larger story I’m dealing with — not only in these paintings but in a lot of what I do — is the effect of rampant residential development on native habitats,” Schreiber says. “So a lot of my work takes place in what particularly firefighters call the ‘wildlife-urban interface,’ where [there’s] that kind of frontier that’s forever changing, where there’s new development swallowing up more land and displacing the animals that used to live there.”
Hearing stories about destructive wildfires on the West Coast has influenced Schreiber’s work for years. California wildfires, including the Camp Fire that killed 85 civilians and devastated the town of Paradise in late 2018, were at the forefront of her mind as she worked on Domestic Disturbances.
“About a decade ago, I began incorporating western fires — starting with seasonal fires in the Malibu mountains, which have a fire-dependent ecology — into my paintings,” Schreiber says. “Climate change and the recent huge fires in the West have contributed to fire again becoming an important element in my work.”
In addition to images of domestic life gone awry, Schreiber will also exhibit a series of freestanding small works collectively called Fire Diary. The pieces show objects like kites and piñatas both in their normal state and caught on fire. Depictions of jackrabbits, birds and lambs surrounded by flames are also included.
This continued use of fire imagery, particularly in Fire Diary, has become deeply personal for Schreiber, who says that her current propensity to depict flames is also a response to the loss of her husband two years ago.
“I’m coming to realize now that … in addition to being about fires in the West and things that I don’t even understand, a lot of that is, I guess, the continuation of a grief process and some anger and also the purifying nature of fire,” Schreiber says. “So that is a big thing and sort of my own rebirth, kind of — perhaps a phoenix rising from the ashes.”