Sharon Barnes in her Los Angeles studio.
Earlier this month I traveled down to the Arts District of Los Angeles to visit artist Sharon Barnes in her studio. The cool of the morning was lifting as I pulled up to the Anderson Street warehouse and waited momentarily to be buzzed in. Barnes, warm and welcoming, escorted me through the white, high-walled hallways of the communal studio space as we made some small talk. Once we got to the studio, however, my eyes and our conversation quickly turned to the art and artist present.
“When I was younger,” Barnes started after I asked broadly about her artistic career, “I thought that the easiest way to teach myself to paint was to paint things like pictures from magazines.” She talked about her gradual shift to abstraction and reminisced about certain people and things that informed her evolving practice. She looked at me with a, “here’s what it is” gesture. “Think about poets,” she said. “Poets use words in such a different way than in common language. They take words and expand their meanings, so that when you think about what's being said, it deepens your understanding of the subject matter. This is the reason I went to abstraction, because it allows me to do that.” As she spoke, I looked at the studio around us, lined with sculptures and canvases of different sizes exploding with multi-media forms and colors. Barnes pointed at different works in the room as she explained to me that, although her work is abstract, it represents an array of things. Its visual language explores the Black experience, current and past events, ancestry, and her reactions to those things. Barnes exclaimed, “my work is about three things: resistance, resilience, and radical beauty.”
The body of work we talked about in length was her most recent, Seed Winds. In the early days of the pandemic, Barnes (like so many) was unable to access her studio. She described herself as being frozen, unable to move through the day as she had before, she was stuck, while news of the pandemic, police brutality, protests, and political unrest flashed, faster and brighter across screens. She admitted her need to escape those chaotically condensed months, and so she turned to her collection of books and poems. One poem, written by Pulitzer Prize winning author and poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, struck the chord that set Barnes free.
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.
Whose half-black hands assemble oranges
is tom-tom hearted
(goes in bearing oranges and boom).
And there are bells for orphans—and red and shriek and sheen.
A garbageman is dignified
as any diplomat.
Big Bessie's feet hurt like nobody's business,
but she stands—bigly—under the unruly scrutiny, stands in the wild
In the wild weed
she is a citizen,
and is a moment of highest quality; admirable.
It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud.
Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.
– from Second Sermon on the Warpland, by Gwendolyn Brooks
“Second Sermon is full of the politics and society of the time it was written in 1968, but it was like Brooks wrote for today,” Barnes noted. “And what I love about it is that it is so hopeful…it inspired me to get back to my art.” Barnes began to pull from things around her and from what was happening outside, challenging herself to respond hopefully in this new body of work.
Blooming in the Whirlwind, 2021 is one of the first pieces of the series and it provides an example of the development and use of Barnes’ specific visual language. The center of the canvas is made up of layered and collaged paper and acrylic paint. Brilliant magentas, oranges, greens, and blacks spiral frantically at its central point. They fragment and fade into cooler blues and wispy tinted whites as the nucleus expands out toward the perimeters of the canvas. There are four organically shaped, opaque, fuchsia forms placed above the canvas's kinetic core. On the bottom right of the canvas are two hanging strips of fabric. The composition produces a very clear sense of combustion and release. It is hopeful and almost celebratory. However, a look at Barnes’ process initiates a more complex dialogue.
“I’m taking the material, cutting them up, layering them in, moving them around, recreating, and creating something new. That process, to me, creates a metaphor for displacement, and fracture, and feeling, and reparation in the Black Experience,” explains Barnes. That displacement and fracture is evident in the “whirlwind” motif seen in Blooming in the Wind and recurring throughout this series. Where there is additive and subtractive collage and layering in the work, there exists potential metaphors for deracination, re-rooting, and re-emergence. The orbs and threads that are seen in Blooming in the Wind are also devices of Barnes’ visual language. Both elements, though individually complex, share similar contexts in Barnes’ ancestral history.
A deep dive into her ancestry provided Barnes with numerous documented histories of her relatives, including those of individuals who fought in the American Revolution. “I always draw from my ancestors, because of their resilience and perseverance in making lives for themselves. I have family members who escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad, made it to Canada, and then migrated to California. They were Black Pioneers during the goldrush. I also have relatives who were free in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia that migrated west in search of opportunity. Both sides convened in California, which is how I came to be… I see that migration and convergence as the seed wind.” The orbs are like seeds, and the seeds are like bodies “blooming in the whirlwind,” bursting through and out of chaos, to live.
Barnes shared with me a few stories about her ancestors. We talked about how amazing it is that these documents exist and that she can honor their stories of resilience throughout our nation's racist history. “It truly is a gift,” said Barnes, “but at the same time, there were a lot of hanging threads in my research. Points where I just couldn’t follow the line any further.” The hanging fabrics in Barnes' work are like those hanging threads she came across during her research. They mark an abrupt end to her recorded lineage, but hang like ribbons, honoring those unknown. Each piece included in the Seed Winds series uses these motifs of Barnes’ visual language but their compositional differences offer several variations on the theme of resilience, resistance, and radical beauty.
In Furious Flower, 2021 the majority of the canvas is collaged above an intense hue of blue. The left side is more densely layered with yellow, orange, black, and red pieces of painted paper and found materials. There are also several pieces of pinned fabric scattered on the left side of the canvas. The right half of the canvas is dominated by a large fuchsia seed-like form. The painted pieces of paper and objects seem to be moving toward the right side of the canvas but are deflected into a circular motion around this large form. Furious Flower creates the feeling of an individual caught in a current, resisting as it builds and whips around them.
She Stands Bigly, 2021 . Seed Winds, 2021
Seed Winds, 2021 and She Stands Bigly, 2021 introduce smaller circular forms and are distinguished by their use of the grid in their compositions. This changes the effect of the whirlwind. In Seed Winds, the grid scales out the whole piece, so you can see this massive migration being pushed by gusting white brushstrokes, across planes of space and perhaps time. In She Stands Bigly, the column in the center of the canvas is layered with rigid lines, found objects, and dark and vibrant color, as brightly colored dots bubble out and down the canvas. Pastel washed forms rise, fade, and glow as they move up from the center to the top of the left and right panels of the canvas. The title recalls “Big Bessie” from Second Sermon on the Warland who “stands–bigly–under the unruly scrutiny, stands in the wild weed,” resilient through pain.
Pieces like Rootedness, 2022, Where Chilly Winds Don’t Blow, 2022 and Recharted Paths and Replanted Gardens, 2022, place more compositional emphasis on the collage, assemblage element. Where the Seed Winds and She Stands Bigly are zoomed out, these paintings are zoomed into the whirlwind. The scale, use of line, and painted blocks slow down the movement of this collage, perhaps to imagine the radical beauty that can exist in fracturing and fragmenting. “The human experience is complex,” remarked Barnes. “Sometimes it's a ball of confusion. There are times of chaos but there’s also times of harmony, and I’m going to show that in the work.”
Recharted Paths and replanted Gardens, 2022 Where Chilly Winds Don't Blow, 2022 Rootedness, 2022
The human experience is blanketed with the winds of life that bring on change, destruction, and chaos. Gwendolyn Brooks’s demand to “bloom” and “live” in the midst of those winds is what inspired Barnes to produce this recent series. Through the use of strong visual language, these works express the complexities of the “whirlwind" and Barnes shows us that “through turmoil and winds, seeds move, take root and begin new life...The wind is always present, but the blooming, and the resilience and beauty of life is also important.”
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