A fox, a fish, a deer head, some skulls, a series of rotten teeth mounted on plaques, and three cork boards of pinned butterflies cover the walls of Becca Barnet’s downtown apartment. It’s difficult to keep our eyes from moving about the room as she explains her passion for collecting, because new mysterious treasures lurk around every corner. Pulled by the desire to preserve pieces of history, Barnet blurs the lines between fact and fiction in her sculpture, drawings, puppets, and taxidermy, urging viewers to question what is real and what is imagined.
After growing up in Spartanburg, Barnet went on to study illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. A six-week internship with a taxidermist allowed her to explore her fascination with recreating textures. “I’m a dog person, not a hunter,” she explains as we lean in to examine the fox on her desk. As part of her senior project at RISD, she hung a series of decaying teeth mounted on wooden plaques onto a wall of toile. “I wanted to make people question what’s acceptable to hang on their walls.”
After working with the “world’s largest dinosaur exhibit” at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Barnet moved to Charleston to work as an exhibit technician for the S.C. Aquarium’s Madagascar exhibit. “I’m inspired by the challenge of making something look realistic and working to answer questions like, ‘Will it last, and will it be durable enough to survive years of public exposure?’ It’s what I love to do more than anything,” she says. The attention to detail of her work bleeds into her art, and a 3-D sculpture of a rabbit reveals her technical ability to recreate something from nature.
Barnet tells the story of building a replica of the platypus exhibit for the American Museum of Natural History. The real exhibit was too fragile to travel and a replica needed to be created. “When they came to pick it up, they didn’t know which was real,” she says with a smile. “That’s when you know you’ve done your job.”
The job of an exhibit technician is to create another world to such a degree that the viewer forgets they are standing behind a gate. It’s also a short-term job that results in a lot of moving around, which is why Barnet wears many hats. Pet portraits, private art lessons for students (she’ll be teaching at Redux this summer), and taxidermy repair are just a few of her side projects. She met Rick Rhodes while working with the Halsey on the From the Moon exhibit, which led her to her first solo show in his West Ashley gallery. The exhibit will explore work from the last several years of her career, including delicate bird puppets and black-and-white illustrations.
Freakish medical anomalies are transformed into hauntingly beautiful studies in these illustrations. There is a sense of magical realism in the images, a blend of truth and fantasy, that is not meant to inform. In “Dermonosology,” a woman with tumors all over her back is featured from behind. In “Osteopathology,” or “the bones boys” as Barnet calls them, several young boys lie slumped together, too weak to stand upright. “People are fascinated by things that also disgust them,” Barnet says. “I want to challenge people to accept things or look at those things that make them upset.” The detailed process is most evident in her illustrations and can be seen in “Trichology,” a drawing of a house full of hair, but Barnet says she prefers the kind of work where the artist’s craftsmanship becomes invisible. “What excites me the most about 3-D work is being absent in terms of my hands. It makes my heart beat a little faster.”
Under Barnet’s hands, life is salvaged. Instead of a deer hanging like a trophy, the animals on her walls seem more like old friends. Her curious nature will transport viewers into a disturbingly beautiful fantasy land.