Love is... 2011 (continued)
There has always been a wide gulf between the poetic expectations of romantic love and the baser realities of lust. One only has to read the eighteenth-century romp Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure;by John Cleland to discover that love and lust were intimate, sometimes uneasy bed-fellows then as now. Yet the tricky relationship between the aspirations of romance and the immediate needs of lust is perhaps more apparent in today’s society than ever before. In the not-so-distant past access to sexual imagery for men involved furtive activity: the purchase of;Playboy, Razzle, Readers’ Wives or any number of similar titles from the top shelf of a newsagent, or videos from a Soho sex shop. Now, with the ubiquity of the Internet, sexual stimulation can be accessed anywhere with WIFI access at the press of a button. This encourages unrealistic expectations of the reality of relationships, both sexual and romantic.
While the sexualisation of society, of youth and the corresponding loss of innocence may be debated endlessly in the broadsheets and on Radio 4, in his new body of work Barnaby Barford tackles these thorny issues around sex in the twenty-first-century head-on with a pithy directness and, crucially, a sense of humour. There is no room for prudery around Barford’s work, for part of its power is in its exploration of the margins of what is socially acceptable. Barford brings society’s anxieties around sexuality into the open in perhaps the least likely of artistic mediums: ceramic tableaux. With concise visual wit, Barford subverts the over-wrought sentimental ceramic groupings from which his characters are drawn, with subtle interventions that radically change their saccharine narratives to explore the ambivalence between innocence and depravity. For example, instead of the polite social groupings of ladies taking tea that one might expect of the medium, Barford creates an awkward post-coital moment with an elegant lady discovering her partner in bed with his legs-akimbo, alongside a Japanese geisha and a variety of sex toys.
Sexual voyeurism is central to several of these works, as in Love Thy Neighbour and I told you this was a good spot, in which ostensibly ‘innocent’ children peek at plein-air nude bathing and an erotic coupling in a pond. The Victorian device of the two-way ghost mirror features in a group of works that explore the idea of innocence and voyeurism more fully. On first appearance the Rococo frames of these mirrors and the cutesy porcelain characters seated before them give the works a decorative appearance, but when the lights are switched on a seedy peep show is revealed behind the mirror that is anything but decorative. These works play on the idea of the truth being revealed in the mirror, and the good-bad dichotomy. Equally, switching on the standard lamp in Love at First Sight changes the way we view the fey adolescent boy seated below, for it becomes apparent that the imagery in the magazine on his lap is a graphic image of an erect penis and alongside him there is a pile of tissues used for a post-masturbatory clean-up. He may look innocent, but he has discovered a source of future pleasure.
There is a deftness and lightness of touch in Barford’s unique narrative pieces, which belies the skill and subtle interventions that go into making them appear so effortless. They subtly mix together Japanese manga figurines, porcelain heads, imperceptible additions and artfully applied paint so that eras and cultural ideas are mixed and one can’t tell the objects’ provenance.
In a work called Love Nest the arms and legs were originally drawn from the limbs of angel figurines discovered in Naples, so that present and past are drawn together in an entirely new cultural meaning. In all Barford's works, first appearances are invariably undermined on closer inspection. A second glance at That’s Amore, a mirror garlanded with red roses, a traditional expression of romantic love, reveals an under-layer of 500 hand-made porcelain tiles each featuring pornographic magazine covers that the artist has sourced from the internet. In another work, entitled Secret to a Happy Marriage, a winsome young man enthusiastically pushes along a wheelbarrow heaped high with pornographic magazines, whilst in How else am I gonna learn? a young hoodie justifies himself when caught in the act, yet swamped in a sea of pornographic magazines. The position of the magazine he holds in front of his crotch forms a visual pun as if he has been imagining receiving fellatio from the three women on the cover. T
he titles say it all, wry commentaries that underline the visual puns. But beyond and through the device of pornography Barford is exploring a more profound and universal question of ‘how we learn what relationships and sex are about – and in what order.’ Humour has long been a coping mechanism for dealing with sex. It gives us distance on a difficult, often embarrassing issue. Any Freudian analyst might be only too familiar with the fact that one man or woman’s innermost fantasy can be incredibly funny to another. Barford’s work manifests a bawdy comedy that is unmistakably British, with its roots stretching back to William Hogarth and the British comic artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries such as James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. This ancestry is strongly evident in You’d Do it if You loved Me, a pastoral scene inspired by Hogarth’s ‘modern moral paintings’, in particular his pendant paintings in the Fitzwilliam Museum called Before and After (1731). In Before a maiden makes a show of affected coyness at the advances and persuasions of a young gallant as apples tumble from her apron, anticipating the post-coital scene depicted in After, in which their clothing is in disarray and their faces flushed. In Barford’s updated version, the apples around the sentimental love scene have scattered far and wide. The goal of the young man’s persuasive gallantry becomes acutely clear from the explicit pornographic image of anal sex at his feet, a visual joke about the emotional bribery that can be used to get what is really wanted.
Barford sits at the centre of a recent re-evaluation of the role of ‘craft’ within contemporary fine art practice, alongside artists such as Rachel Kneebone, Bouke de Vries and Grayson Perry. These artists have questioned the hierarchies that have existed between ceramics and conceptual art, and whilst his craftsmanship is without question, it could be argued that through the use of readymade materials Barford to some extent transcends this debate, indeed he has a precedent of sorts in the wit and visual pun of Marcel Duchamp’s iconic porcelain urinal entitled ‘Fountain’ (1917). Yet while we may have seen a transvestite potter win the Turner Prize with coil pots decorated with transgressive imagery, porcelain figurines continue to be considered the epitome of bourgeois respectability: elegant ladies made by Meissen, Wedgwood or Royal Doulton, or cheap cherubic youths that might adorn a mantelpiece or a sideboard in a suburban living room. Barford’s work derives much of its power from subverting the image and social expectation of such pieces. In Barford’s provocative work these same cherubic youths and elegant ladies appear, but with their basest desires revealed for all to see.