“Brilliantly puckish, and something of an agent provocateur. By seduction and guile, his work exposes our inner frailties, prejudices and desires, holding up a mirror to us both metaphorically as well - on occasion - physically. Few are so incisive and insightful.” Alun Graves, Senior Curator of the Ceramics and Glass Collection at the V&A.
British artist Barnaby Barford offers an uncomfortable glimpse of the world around us, using beauty and often humour he invites us to question our place in it, our values, our choices, ourselves and asks us to ‘look again’. From sculpture to drawing to film, Barford’s work has a clear thread of enquiry connecting his pieces, the human condition.
Even from his early work using mass market found objects and kitsch antique figurines, Barford was a master of creating layered narratives bubbling just below the surface. Creating contemporary Hogarthian scenes by manipulating original figurines and placing them within new and often darker subtexts. Journalist Caroline Roux says: “Barford’s work always has an instant likeability which serves, at first, to hide its darkness or political position. But there’s always something sinister going on beneath the surface.”
Although constantly creating work in new materials, Barford consistently returns to ceramic not for its connotations of craft, but for the opportunity to utilise mass and industrial production processes which he can benefit from, or interfere with to create artworks. “Ceramic is a fascinating material, it is steeped in such a rich history and we have a unique relationship with it as a tactile material. We eat and drink from it every day, we decorate our houses with it, but we do not expect to be challenged by it, which is precisely what makes it fun to play with.”
Barford’s most recent critical success came with his monumental Tower of Babel project staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The 6.5m tall tower comprised of 3000 bone china buildings, each depicting a real London shop photographed by the artist. Derelict shops and pound stores appeared at the bottom of The Tower, while London’s exclusive boutiques and galleries featured at the summit. Blurring the boundaries of art and commerce, each shop was for sale through the V&A. With prices rising as The Tower ascends, it confronted us with the choices we make as consumers, through necessity or desire.
Barford explains: “I’m in love with London and [the Tower of Babel] is a celebration of the trade and commerce that built this city. Equally it is an invitation to consider our place in this. Have we ceased to be citizens of a community and simply become the consumers that fuel it? If so, how and why have we become complicit in that?” As well as providing a dialogue capturing London’s retail history and the consumerism that underpins the capital, the piece raised thousands of pounds for the V&A museum.
Recent bodies of work including The Seven Deadly Sins have seen Barford exploring sin and moral decay within a contemporary context. His interpretation of the sins are beguiling, the pieces are beautiful, but also visceral and often brutal in their representation. Each of the seven works took the form of a mirror, human in scale; most reflected the viewer in full length. In his depiction of Lust, the mirror was encased in hundreds of petals and foliage, clustered like coral, visually enticing but upon closer inspection reveal themselves as much more. Loaded with emotional messages, the subtle pinks and creams are exposed as the soft skin tones of porn star's faces, eyes closed, as they act out their roles for other’s enjoyment. “I wanted to concentrate on the actors’ faces,” Barford explains, “These films are impersonal, in the sense that it’s not the faces that viewers want to see.” When faced with this piece, the audience is forced to see themselves reflected in the centre of this chaos and confronted with the extremes of contemporary sex.
The Tottenham Foxes are another example of Barford using current affairs to examine the wider human condition. A family of three life-size foxes initially disarm the viewer with their soft edges, fluffy ears and padding paws, but when examined we see that the ceramic flowers and leaves they are made from, feature shocking images of the fires and the aftermath of the 2011 London Riots. Barford draws a comparison between city foxes forced to struggle and scavenge and societal and economic pressures experienced by swathes of our city.
November 2016 sees the launch of Barford’s latest body of work. ME WANT NOW offers a metaphorical narrative on the dominance of the ‘me first’ ideology and debates our values in an increasingly polarised political landscape. ‘More’, ‘Power’, ‘Change’, ‘Choice’, ‘Hope’, ‘Glory’, ‘Greatness’ - Large scale energetic Word Drawings, embody the chaotic immediacy and almost forceful nature of the ‘me first’ culture. Acting as claustrophobic ‘nets’, these drawings trap both the audience and the centrepiece, a queue of life-size ceramic animals, by offering us what ‘we’ want now. From the towering 8ft Polar bear to a tiny timid rabbit, each intricately encrusted predator and pray sits beside each other waiting for the unknown. Barford explains “It feels like words have never been so important - those written in the press, posted across social media and in speeches from our politicians, in volatile times words can be dangerous.” He goes on “In the face of our insatiable need for more and the resulting constant discontent, is this really what we want?”
Barnaby Barford (b. 1977) graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2002. An internationally exhibited artist, he has had solo shows across Europe and the USA, including a recent exhibition charting his practice to date at MoCA Virginia. Represented by David Gill Gallery in London, his work is included in many public and private collections, such as The V&A Museum in London and MoFA in Houston, Texas. He has received many prestigious commissions including Louis Vuitton and a permanent public artwork in North East London.