From cars to coffee to cars the female form has been used as commercial short hand for possessive desire. The commodification of half the global population, is cross cultural, and since the earliest foundations of Feminism and women’s liberation there’s has been a drive for Women to be represented on their own terms.
For artists like Siena Barnes part of this act of rebellion is about owning the historical symbols that surround the female subject, removing the eyes of the male gaze, and rephrasing desire as self-power. But is this individualism a revolution against a closeted cultural system, or just an evolutionary mutation to coax new buyers into buying in?
Born in London, Barnes’ work takes inked drawings, rooted in the rebellious spirit of punk, and celebrates the provocations of Pop, queer, and sexual iconography. The sense of humour harks back to a key weapon of resistance, laughter. Power, loves a fight. It loves to smash, and craves the opportunity to flex. As Normal Mailer might argue (tongue firmly in cheek) those in power are as much prisoners as their subjects, forced to perform in the same field as those they see as below them. However, he’s right in that there are areas of access where resistance can be recognised. Humour’s power is in how it equalises, and is an effective threat precisely because it brings together opposing interests on a relatively equal field. Another commonality is the most unequal of competitions, sex.
In Barnes’ work we see those two cultural technologies in action and their universal efficacy has brought her art to viewers in places such as Tokyo, Nashville, London and Berlin. Connecting with similar minded people globally, she’s been associated with the Tom of Finland Foundation collection, with musician Kim Gordon in Nashville and emblazoned across the chests of Harajuku fashionistas in Japan.
Ahead of her exhibition in Japan on the 11th Feb 2023, Barnes answers some Trebuchet’s questions about her aims, her processes and power of a message against oppression.
How did you get started?
There is no definite start point, only a curiosity how to see. The only rule is to start over. A significant moment came when I shared a series of shock pop watercolours with Harajuku fashion giants Hysteric Glamour. We’ve collaborated ever since. Viva le cold call. Post Covid my work has racked up serious air miles with exhibitions in the USA, Europe and Asia. Can’t stop now, won’t stop now.
How would you describe your technique?
Quality of line is my calling card. I find incredible magic in simplicity. As the paintbrush moves my soul is bared; bold, vulnerable, despairing. Line is how I learnt to draw, scribble, scrawl and stick (people). Line joins the dots between my airless obsessions – words and figures. Doing the same thing and expecting different results is a definition of insanity. My last creative rut taught me that when repetition becomes formulaic technique must be reimagined. Art is both malady and cure.
The question is, can I let go of successful techniques in favour of curiosity, risk and experimentation? What gets in the way of creative evolution is fear. Fear of change, fear of failure, fear of death. Or as artist Richie Culver put it, I really like your old work. To reimagine oneself creatively, to leap from the path of fate to the path of destiny, is an art form in itself. Who is she?
Who has inspired you so far?
As a child I saw Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, pop art’s first wave left an indelible mark. Growing up in and around London galleries, I was educated by the greats; Basquiat, Isaac Julian, Nan Goldin and Penny Slinger (I was overjoyed to exhibit alongside Penny in 2021). Art offered an escape from a besieged Bermondsey council estate in a then derelict outpost of London; drugs, tart cards and the sickly-sweet smell of Soho streets left a different kind of mark. Pre-renaissance, all art was called poetry. High art and low places live on in my mind. The city made me do it.
What is your most successful artwork and why?
I live in creative anticipation of what is to come. When preparing for an upcoming show in Tokyo, I set up an impromptu studio a long way from home. Breaking is becoming and I was falling apart. On a frozen winter morning something unexpectedly wonderful happened. Two strands of my practice, pop and esoterica, exchanged vows in Liz Forever a Hollywood Babylon themed shot gun wedding. It was a good drawing, even I could see that, but ultimately the work was successful because I had resuscitated, reassembled and reimagined myself as a human being. I painted myself into existence. That is the power of art.
How have people reacted to your work?
I’ve lost friends and gained new ones. Questions around gender, sexuality and objectification rightly provoke strong reactions. The ambivalence around agency in my work can be unsettling. There are no easy answers when it comes to the complex sizzle of sex and power. I reclaim my body through drawing nudes who return the gaze, my subjects are queer icons who take up more space than society would care to permit.
As notions of the feminine evolve, the Venusian ideal expands, fucking with societal gender norms. And I’m here for it. I believe it is vital that we continue to discover ourselves in this moment, now. No matter what they say.
What has been the most important discovery in your practice to date?
Finding my scale. When I blew up scrappy sketchbook drawings to XL museum size the earth trembled a bit.
What is the role of emotion in your work?
Writer Philippa Snow once described my drawings as, ‘advertisements for sex and death as viewed through the glasses from They Live.’ Like They Live and the movie’s protégé Obey, my work explores fear and desire as the driving forces of western consumer culture. Fear and desire live in the limbic brain and we live in limbo. Lurching from one fear to the next in the hope that a momentary fulfilment of desire (faster cars, plumper lips, TikTok made me buy it mascara) will soothe our discontent.
In a culture overloaded with information and starved of meaning I seek the divine in the profane. In my work the feminine stands as a cypher for the shadow (the parts of ourselves that are either too difficult or brilliant to own and get projected onto others), for the siren eyed depths of the psyche which are wild, frightening and inescapable. The shadow contains a golden invitation to turn towards the pain of our personal and collective stories because now more than ever before, what is hidden must be seen.
To what extent do you plan a work before your start?
Spontaneity is a very important part of my process. On a good day the big bang happens right in front of my eyes. My job is to capture the explosion.
Where should people start with your work?
Check out my new drawings made for upcoming solo show Even Bad Girls Get The Blues at Wishless Gallery in Tokyo. Witch Please is a current favourite. Catch my sold-out collections with Japanese fashion legends Hysteric Glamour on the re-sale luxury menswear app Grailed.
What interpretation of your work has surprised you the most?
Richard Prince said he liked my drawings once. I’ve been dining out on it ever since.
What’s next for your artistic practice?
I can’t wait to get lost in Tokyo en route to my first solo show in the megatropolis. I’ve been showing there regularly over the last few years but haven’t been able to visit because of covid travel restrictions.
I’m dying to get back into the studio. For a long time I dreamt of the conscious and unconscious, the Apollonian and Dionysian meeting on the page. The Basquiat Warhol collaborative paintings play on in my mind. Perhaps this new language, pop esoterica, offers another starting point. A golden thread, a ray of light, a renewed dedication to wonder. Dream baby dream.
Siena Barnes solo exhibition ‘Even Bad Girls Get the Blues’
Period : Saturday 11th February – Sunday 5th March 2023
Opening hours : Thu – Sun 12 – 6PM
Closed : Mon – Wed
Venue: WISH LESS gallery
Address : 5-12-10 Tabata Kita-ku
The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. – Aristotle