First some images of Will’s work over the last couple of years. He is insanely prolific and his blog itself only gives a glimpse of an ever growing body of work. This is a small taste of walls, canvas, paper and printed works between 2007-2009.
‘The Blob,’ was a painting I watched Will do in less then a day and involved a few new twists to his technique. One of two works he did in a couple of days for a group exhibition at the HeliumCowboy Artspace in Hamburg, 2009.
Following that, there is a somewhat lengthy unedited note (at least with respect to a blog) originally intended for Will.
Last week I wrote a small text in which I joked about 2012’s imminent arrival and asked why a person would spend their last years on earth doing something that has been done prolifically for 3000 years or so years and can be sort of isolating (like painting in a studio). I shared the text with a friend who I consider one of the most interesting young painters I’ve crossed, worrying slightly that he might take it the wrong way (even if he’d be as aware as anybody how the statement over simplified more blatantly than the lyrics of a country and western song).
I wasn’t dismissing the value of painting as a practice or individual pursuit, but reflecting on the challenges and demands of the general medium’s legacy (and maybe contemporary value in terms of social engagement). It’s a tough nut for sure. There is such a strong existing tradition of incredible painters, most of whom later appeared almost visionary as explanations of their work piled up. As taste changes, and before there even was the notion of taste, the medium remains stoic as our general sense of aesthetics fluctuates. Painting doesn’t mess around. Its history dates back far beyond our political memory or lineage of cultural sensibility. This makes it a very tough field. Then there is the question of if it remains a relevant field, but that is a different discussion.
In judging a painting we demand not only technical mastery, but also a voice, which captures something of the time in which the painter lives. Additional (and eventual market) value, is a story added onto the work; like honey offered to a hive by somebody other than an artist bee. This honey becomes dessert. It is a work’s legacy.
If we looked at a history of painting, we can imagine that each piece would be forced to take a humble place in a line of paintings so long it makes airport security feel fleeting and frivolous. If it is to make its way through the line, a painting has to be built up. This is what a history of painting tells us; good paintings build up. There won’t be a single work getting through the line without a jacket, wallet or return ticket like some would be plane bomber, that’s for sure. In the art world, security is much more scrutinizing and even less generous. If I think about this in terms of the work of Will Barras, this concept of building up a painting is something that he hasn’t chosen to make much time for (yet?). There is labor, no doubt, but it is not necessarily the painting that appears laborious.
Often, he arrives for an opening a week early and creates all the work on site. He’s frequently articulated that the work comes out easier on the road and in semi alien environments. Not just the work, even the will to paint presents itself differently. While not wheel shattering in itself, perhaps this is an unintentional (and unpretentious) way to work towards something new in a tradition where originality seems less and less possible with every painting we see. This isn’t something necessarily particular about Will. Many many artists today are working to the melody of a similar method, regardless of what tunes are in their ipods. We can start making obvious and prevalent comparisons to music and performance, but that is not exactly what I am referring to. It is not ‘Live’ as much as it is Life, which of course is– Live Non-Stop (Three words, which bring xxx and strip clubs resisting gentrification to mind after this last year on the road). Coincidentally, one of Will’s most popular recent bodies of work was a series of well-rounded femme fatales that often included a rusty neon palette and a healthy pair of curvy breasts.
That he makes the choice to work with clear beginnings and endings (self imposed as well as purely pragmatic time constraints) links Will to a tradition of action and general expressive painting that often considered the method of painting as important as the painting itself. We can surely argue that this is true with respect to Will’s work and go a step further to say that the process may become the painting should he continue like this for a decade. If any of our most recognized early painters lived today, I wonder if they’d also choose this sort of romantic life, to be out there seeing the world and trying to keep up with the seasons as opposed to the stars.
If we take some easy core qualifications for assessing the strength of a painting, in terms of beauty, skill, inherent meaning and even uniqueness, the works deserve recognition. And in fairness, they do receive it.
Will is an artist’s artist, and from the stretching international creative community earns constant praise, often elevated to a stature of a standout by his peers, an artist par excellence. That he is indeed a painter makes this even more impressive. Life as a commercial artist however, has been less flattering and thus far without an accolade that reflects the respect he commands. In comparison with many of his contemporaries, the price tag on Will’s work is relatively low and his name rarely arises in critical publications.
In the short term, the painterly voice he has developed is something of a stylized manner of story telling. Painting as Novella: Style as narrative. It is easy to link his references and language to a life we all recognize, but its more pop song than literature and could still float away.
Why the gap between these followings? Everybody can have a crack at such a question. Is the work not as good as people think? Who determines this? What criteria are applied? Is it lacking branding or sales strategy? Why not? We know that the value of a Warhol has as much to do with networking and other people as the artist himself. So is Will missing the right partners? Probably. Think for example of how Lazarides aided Banksy, or Saatchi and Gagosian had a hand in making Hirst a household name. Could it come back to where I start; all analysis aside, there is just a lot of painting out there?
The gap may arise, because the work is light, the deadlines are tight and while they scream of style and relevant contemporary signifiers, what they miss is weight. They are not built up. Instead they are moody (in a sort of saucy way) and often nostalgic. New images appear as remembrance of a recent journey or thought, more so than a long and painful struggle. These images almost appear to arrive effortlessly. In this case, ‘effortless’ becomes part of a style, which conceals all the hard work being done and appears nonchalant even when it is sweating bullets.
This makes sense right? Always Travel Light. We all know about the new trend of penalties for excess baggage in any case.
Viewed in broadly democratic locations (skate/snowboards, album covers, walls, prints, t-shirts, etc), the work is engaged and enjoyed by the public. Will’s work stands out to people. This is a massive accomplishment. His last show at the Upper Playground Gallery in San Francisco not only stood out, it also sold out. Even so, this level of success is not yet critical and provides neither the assurance of rent money or enhanced career stability, because it does not yet do battle with itself. Here the ‘competition,’ so to say, is the visual landscape of general culture and we know that popularity does not necessarily equate to quality. It does well here, but then what? What if we only hold it up against itself?
Outside of traditional art history and its contemporary marketplace, all is well for Will Barras. The problem however (if this is a problem), is that for a pertinent critic or collector, when placed into a tradition of painting (as opposed for example to one of bohemia, comics or street art) this ‘travel light’ may translate to: It’s nice, but is he serious? Is the painting a lifestyle crutch or a matter of necessity? If we follow this line, the work remains disposable and even the most moneyed and decadent aren’t going to drop decent dosh on a five-minute fling (at least not in 2010). They are looking for a life long romance, something that will seem even more important tomorrow than it felt upon the first starry-eyed flash, something that earns its place in line and forces itself to the front. I am not being cynical here and just talking about investment though of course I could be. It is about love and in this case, the other suitors he must compete with include an entire history of painting and painters. In terms of the ‘street art phenomenon,’ this notion of moving from the street to the gallery (outside to inside) would be better discussed as moving from one framework of criteria into another or even simpler, from one environment to another. In this case that involves a transitioning from mass perception to critical discourse.
With a voice this strong, if you keep speaking everyday, the muscles are going to build and that weight is going to pile on all by itself. It is no coincidence that the practice of painting fits into a broader life’s practice and it is this life that begins to draw the honey. A mutual friend of Will’s and mine, Hans (Nomad), once said it best to me: Paint if you have love to share. This may be the foundation of Will’s work as painting appears first as social contribution and then subsequently as profession.
This sharing is part of the practice as well. It is as important as the effortless, the movement and the high intake of physical experience. In November 2010, Will opens his next solo show at the StolenSpace Gallery (London). This exhibition will feature a body developed in London, both at home and in the studio over a period of time. Though November gets us 10 months or so closer to doomsday, I’m already anxious to see what Will is saying to us then.
This one for example, he spent a full week on.