Subversive Ceramics: Barnaby Barford's The Seven Deadly Sins
I think the most intriguing art works are those that deliver a message through craft, combining technical skill and statement. Even better is when a pleasing, and seemingly benign, exterior - such as clusters of pretty porcelain flowers - draws us in to confront us with something we didn't expect; to surprise, and possibly even shock. This is the experience British artist Barnaby Barford has created with his new exhibition, The Seven Deadly Sins, currently on show at David Gill Gallery in London's Mayfair.
Known for his controversial re-modelling of traditional ceramic figurines, Barford describes his latest ceramic subversion as ‘love gone wrong’. He has made a series of mirrors which reflect the viewer and convey elements of the ‘sin’ they represent: Pride, Avarice, Gluttony, Envy, Lust, Sloth and Wrath. Human in scale, they reflect the viewer in full length, challenging perception in terms of form and message. The initial response is to marvel at their beauty and delight in the intricate detail which has gone into the construction of the sculptures. Then, the surprise, or shocking twist, plays its part when closer inspection of the frame's porcelain filigree flowers and foliage reveals images loaded with emotional, and sometimes distasteful, messages. For example, Gluttony carries images of fast food and takeaway menus, Envy uses photographs of the London riots in the summer of 2011, and Lust shows clusters of flowers bearing the faces of porn stars.
According to the artist's statement, Barford explores the nature of sin through these seven works, posing the question: Are sins a plague upon the social order or the grease that turns its wheels? At what point does desire turn into obsession or an unhealthy intensification of a perfectly understandable impulse? Barford has spent the last twelve months considering the way society measures and values extreme sensations. “We are all hard-wired to desire power, love, possessions. That’s probably the way all humans have been like,” he says. “It’s not fundamentally bad to desire things but what interests me is the way these ‘sins’ can motivate people. How does the idea of ‘sin’ affect people these days when we live in a largely secular society? What are the consequences?”
In confronting what he sees as uncomfortable truths about contemporary society, Barford decided that the viewers of his work should find themselves not just reflecting on the ideas he has presented to them but also, literally, reflected within the mirror. “You see the piece and you see yourself within it,” he says. (I am dying to know how many people fix their hair when standing in front of these mirrors, especially Pride.)
Pride. Barford has created a mirror which demands that the viewer sees themselves in entirety, portrayed like a god, within the curved portal of an icon. This mirror is surrounded by a multitude of flowers in golden clusters which frame the viewer, giving the reflected figure an heroic status. Barford’s interpretation of Pride is his take on the familiar phrase, “If it makes you happy…”, expanding on the notion that pride can be defined by arrogance, defiance, desire for self-fulfilment and self-satisfaction, no matter what impact your desire might have on other people. He was inspired by Henry Fairlie, British political journalist and social critic, who said: “Pride excites us to take too much pleasure in ourselves, but not to take pleasure in our humanity… it causes us to ignore others.”
Sloth. Barford has created a mirror which resembles a lazy loop, a bulging shape, weighted at the base with the easy, swelling lines of a bag filled with cushions. “I wanted to use just plain white flowers for Sloth,” said Barford, “because it’s about not caring. It’s represented by a shape full of nothingness and the sense of an emotion which is too inert to love or hate anything or anyone.” He adds another quote from Henry Fairlie, “Sloth is a sin which believes in nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.”
Gluttony. An obsession with food is clear to see within this mirror. Resembling the bloated gut of the digestive system, the flowers carry Barford’s witty take on the availability of food and a human inability to resist temptation when it is presented so frequently, and universally. The flowers which adorn the puffy shapes of this piece are patterned with fragments of takeaway food menus and fast food advertisements. “From fatty kebabs to extreme fine dining, humans can’t stop thinking about food,” says Barford. He adds, “For a dieter the idea of food is negatively all-consuming and for the greedy person it’s a constant urge.” The pale tints of the fast food menus are seductively pretty and appealing, just as they are intended to be in their real purpose.
Wrath. The sharp shape of a mirrored star sits at the centre of this intense piece. Using the hot, flame colours of red and yellow, the impression of a bomb-blast is immediately apparent. Barford has taken the intensity of anger, when it spills into violence, and has represented it in a cacophony of colour loaded with exploding emotion. “The bomb is a master motif of our time,” says Barford. “A British viewer might see this and think of terrorism but an Iraqi might think of NATO bombs and a Japanese person might think of Hiroshima. At first glance this piece may seem cartoon-like but Barford deliberately uses this style to evoke an emotional distance from the reality of violence. He sees the piece as an example of the way vengeance can be carefully planned, designed to inflict maximum damage and pain but ensuring that the impact is well removed from the person who has planned it.
Lust. Barford confronts the extremes of contemporary sex in this piece. The flowers are beautiful, as with all the other mirrors, but they each bear the image of a porn star’s face, eyes closed, as they act out their roles for other people’s enjoyment. “I wanted to concentrate on the actors’ faces,” said Barford. “These films are impersonal, in the sense that it’s not the faces that the viewer’s want to see.” Yet the viewer of this piece will see themselves reflected within a splattered border of fleshy faces in varying states of ecstasy, disengaged, doing their job for the lust of others.
Envy. This, his most political piece, is about desire for other people’s possessions and the notion that, if they can’t have them then this festering resentment can result in wilful destruction and theft of other people’s property. Barford has used the urban disturbances in London and other UK cities in the summer of 2011 to illustrate this extreme sensation. “What happened during those riots was appalling,” he says, “but you can understand how a sense of injustice, coupled with violent opportunity, can catapult people into a situation when they take what they can, because they can.” He adds, “There’s this idea that people feel an entitlement to enjoy what others have and an irritation that others should enjoy what they don’t have. We are sold the idea of society as being equal,” he says, “and everyone having equal opportunities. But sadly we are simply not equal.” This large oblong mirror is covered with a filigree of creeper, like a lascivious weed which threatens to engulf the entire piece. Each of the leaves bears an image of the riots; hooded youths throwing stones, breaking windows, rampaging in the city streets and confronting the police. The piece’s beauty belies the depressing violence which envy can promote so suddenly in people who believe they can justify criminal behaviour as an aspect of their ‘right’ to possess other people’s goods.
Avarice. The desire for money is plainly seen in this handsome piece. Florets of porcelain blooms each bear the fragmentary image of some of the world’s great currencies. Greenback dollars for the leaves, pink Euros and Sterling pound notes as well as Yuan, Rupees, Turkish lira for the flowers. Avarice confronts the viewer with their basic desire for wealth, depicted as the wreaths twist and turn across the mirror’s organic shape. “The obsession for wealth can be seen both reflexively and reflectively, demonstrating desire and seeing the truth,” says Barford.
The Seven Deadly Sins can be viewed at David Gill Gallery at 2-4 King Street, St James’s, London SW1Y 6QP until Friday, 12 April. Concurrently, an exhibition of his earlier work will be shown from February 9 – March 17 at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California, USA.