I acted as writer and editor for the most recent catalogue raisonné of the Spanish artist Lluís Barba, a publication which coincided with Art Basel 2011 and included an extended text on the artist’s works (see below).
The Hay Wain, Lluis Barba, 2009, (200 x 300cm)
Life in the Limelight
It is very difficult to assess a system of values that might relate the art of Lluís Barba to any particular cultural or artistic tradition. Though his is not a straight satire of the socially reprehensible in the Hogarthian trend, the immediate brashness and vulgarity of his large-scale works can at first glance appear to stick two fingers up to ‘high art’, with all the stagnant hierarchies so ingrained in the canons of art history. His ‘interventions’ are vivid, bright, and colourful, with photos of tanned celebrities and acid-pink Jeff Koons sculptures populating their surfaces. They are also immensely playful, and Barba quite obviously revels in the brawling visual noise created by the myriad cut-outs of celebrities and politicos he has collected through the lens of his camera or from the likes of ‘Hello’ magazine. As a result, each work becomes a visual charnel house for the pornographic, the hackneyed and the in-your-face. A kind of modern day Last Judgment scene, where all are thrown together to consider their lot and be judged by us the viewers.
But beneath their initial power to shock, their substance runs in a deep vein, directed by careful observation and a subtle reverence towards exactly those aspects of modern life that Barba chooses to lampoon. Paris Hilton might be dressed to the nines, smiling at the camera, but she has to contend with images of bound prisoners, a MacDonald’s logo, and Robert Indiana’s Love. These dichotomies of savagery and celebrity, artistic homage and contemporary drama that play out across all of Barba’s works, reveal an intricate commentary on social and sexual politics, one that has its roots in an established visual tradition populated by the likes of Brueghel and Goya. Barba’s use of the Hay Wain by Hieronymous Bosch, reveals the similarities between his work and that of these mysterious Old Masters, as well as a profound respect for their iconic and often sinister masterpieces. In Barba’s version of the Hay Wain, lurid reproductions of animals, from Hirst’s first lamb in formaldehyde piece to Koons’ pink dog, fill the scene alongside the usual crowds, starlets and trolley dollies. The human element of the work is interspersed, cut up, and distorted by these bestial symbols; turned into a zoo, or a theatre for the absurd. His engagement here is with the surreality of our very existence – the absurdity of how we believe, and importantly, what we choose to believe in. A good example of this thought process is the artist’s assertion that “Kate Moss is as important to art history as Andy Warhol”. Here then, like Bosch, he explicitly intermingles the emblems of our cultured human society, and our strivings toward art and beauty, with the gritty noise of the everyday and our seemingly aimless pursuit for the next covetable idol. The relativity of our own social systems to those critiqued by artists such as Brueghel, Bosch and Goya hundreds of years ago, playfully unfolds before us in his imagined human spectacles.
During the manipulation process, the artist also takes pains to embed his amassed cornucopia of imagery within the surface of the background artworks. Like Magritte’s lady on horseback, figures are woven behind and into their surrounding environment, pulling all dimensions into one illusionistic landscape. This process of getting under the skin of Old Masters and other paintings, allows Barba to play with the reality of the image, and rearrange or draw out the meanings he interprets in their surfaces. He duplicates cropped figures from one work to the next, enlarging and repositioning to question relationships again. In so doing, he redefines the focus of these interventions, and importantly the artworks behind. They become variations of many parallel alternatives, where a melancholic figure, standing at a gramophone after committing a murder, can easily mean the same as Angelina Jolie’s fictional role as the gun-wielding heroine from Tomb Raider. Such surreality and flexibility of meaning attacks established dogmas concerning originality, the intransience of tradition, and the distance at which history is kept. Time is collapsed in his works, pulling everything together as bedfellows in our visual culture.
Barba critiques our understanding of culture without mercy. Our collective propensity to snap photographs of an attraction without really looking is highlighted as a process of touristic consumption over considered engagement. We imbibe art as much as food or film stars, he points out, and by snapping every angle of a particular artwork or object we claim some small dominion over what is being looked at within the frame. He explores this further through the inclusion of his own portrait in each image, often pictured with camera in hand. The fact that we see him pointing the lens at a nude from Magritte’s The Assassin – a dead corpse laid out on the table and the focus of the painting’s drama – is a cyclical engagement with the image as spectacle, and the artist as fellow consumer/creator. He is partaking in a visual tourism, whereby he himself is a spectacle as much as he is a viewer, laying claim to the image before him. He doesn’t work around the issue of looking, but confronts it directly, and the camera becomes both a tool like the painter’s brush, and an icon of consumption, brandished for us all to see. Barba isn’t giving up his role in the artistry he so profusely references, he is merely conceding to the dominant medium of this age. And where our distinctions between art and life become confused in this process of tourism, where a painting is a lost artifact as well as part of an everyday language, the art object itself becomes a central concern and a peripheral one simultaneously.
The inclusion of the artist’s own image is important in a historical sense as well. In many works of art from the European tradition of the last six or seven hundred years the artist as well as his patrons could easily be found somewhere in the image, usually as a bystander to the main drama of the scene, if not actually a part of it. By including his own portrait, Barba further delineates and questions his function in the creative/consumptive process – he is often in the middle of it all, for better or worse. The role of patron (as benefactor, as consumer, as supporter) is transposed onto the celebrities populating his work, as well as onto himself; like patrons they want to be seen. Importantly though, we the viewers are also given this role. We engage in the seeing and the being seen, and we become extensions of the scene playing out before us. Barba highlights the death of one religion (that of traditional devotional patronage in the times of Breughel et al.) and the birth of another, filled with unlikely icons and demagogues from our own times. We are the patrons of these idols’ celebrity status though, so we cannot claim innocence. We have given them their place in society, and their role as art objects is governed by our consumption of their lives. But perhaps the message is that religion changes more fluidly than this, that it is merely transferred through a slower process of diffusion over time? Is it a part of every age of humanity? In much the same way that Brueghel’s figures would have pointed out to their contemporary audience, these works are made up of us, and what we have done to our fellow man.
More recent works, such as The Persistence of Memory, and Dog Sleeping in the Shade of the Sea (both after Dali), have as their focus the notion of identity, in a manner that veers away from Barba’s other, more explicit references to status and celebrity. Again he populates a work with images of bodies, most of which are nudes (or naked? It depends on how you want to see them), but most of them look away from us, not as he has otherwise arranged in confrontational poses, or processing towards the viewer. With backs turned, their nudity/nakedness is covered by barcodes and patterning; society’s own order and adornments on the otherwise individual and idiosyncratic human body. These works are a quieter play with denial, individuality, and the viewer/object relationship. They comment on the tensions between private and public on a much more personal level, while their severe typological arrangement and the recognizable identities of the artworks behind draws a wider engagement with humanity in general.
Barba’s plethoric choice of imagery is as much homage as it is critique. The importance of Art in an age governed by global communication, the collapse of distance, and the instantaneousness of information, is expressed through almost infinite combinations; images within images within images. Though Barba’s treatment of those who have for him negatively influenced the modern world is as barbed as the images of hell in some of his favourite Old Masters, his constant reflections on his own visual surroundings, and his almost encyclopedic references to these other artists and artworks, help define his work as a more positive view of modern life than one might at first recognize. That’s not to say that he necessarily believes art will save the world, but we should consider his work as part of an ongoing engagement with the wealth of visual stimulus and artistic endeavor that surrounds us. Like a set of scales at the Last Judgment, or Bosch’s dreamscapes on humanity, Barba weighs up and lays bare our own part in this world. While we may think we’re immune to the process, he drags us into the melting pot along with the culturally rich and the socially profane he so willingly dissects.
Matthew Reeves, April 2011