• Call + Response

In Conversation with Barry Johnson

In this week’s One + One interview, curator and writer Veronica Elizabeth Thomas talks to Barry Johnson, painter and mixed media artist from Seattle, Washington.

We were curious and fascinated by the self-taught artist, his ability to combine unconventional materials with house paint, the air of solemnity his subjects held and were eager to find out more:

VET: I understand that your body of work goes beyond visuals, you also work with film and photography. What’s the medium that gives you the most creative freedom?

BJ: Doing Installations. Anytime I’m working with an installation- one, it’s three dimensional which is always the medium I want to work in. Paint is great but there’s only so much you can do on a canvas. When I’m working with installations, they give the ability to work with people, work with objects and work with sound, which is one of the things that I really love doing the most. I have this ongoing installations series where I take large groups of people and I usually put them in a public setting. I have them stand still for long periods of time just because in our modern society we’re constantly so caught up in shit that we never take some time to sit down. That standing still and watching people can be so unnerving for people, so it causes them to stop and reflect in that moment and then there’s also a performance associated with it. Installations can go to very big ones, full of light, sound, dance, and instrumentation- it’s vast. It’t the most exciting because there’s always so much I can do.

VET: In terms of your visuals, from what I can see, you use lavenders and deep muted purples often in your art, why is that?

BJ: So I like…(laughs) Nah, I’m just going to say it. Brown skin is such an incredibly beautiful color and depending on the colors that you put behind it, it’s very luminescent. I’m always going to be aware of colors that are working for that time. Truly, I’m following a vibe. Last year, I went on this long pink vibe where pink just showed up in everything and that just happened to be the time when millennial pink was a thing. So I’m often aware of what trends are happening but also not being trendy like let’s go geometric paintings because that’s what everyone else is doing. I don’t follow trends like that but I am aware of the colors of the year and how they affect things.

Right now, I keep seeing orange and everything that I’ve painted has had orange on it. But at the top of the year, to your point, I was heavily influenced by lavender and a lot of scales and hues of purple. It’s a vibe but it changes.

VET: Which piece are you most proud of?

BJ: There was a sculpture that I made, it’s a part of the series "Fuck The Crown". It’s around this whole idea that once someones assumes the ultimate power that they’re a marked man. It’s inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Most Young Kings Get Their Heads Cut Off”. I took this crown, broke it apart and reassembled it to look nothing like a crown. I placed it on glass and surrounded it with volcanic ash and iron oxide under it. I loved it. To me, it was the most intimate one.

Barry Johnson, "Fuck The Crown"

VET: You use unconventional objects in your work like fabric and tile, how do you go about that?

BJ: I don’t follow a color map or a set idea of what I want to make. I’m just attracted to the moment and material. A lot of things that are not supposed to be together, I like that idea as well. How can I take really heavy tile and how can I stick this on a canvas and will it fall apart and if it falls apart it’s still really cool because it was a worthy attempt. And this whole series that I’ve done where I block faces out- and it’s primarily men, because I don’t want to be a part of a group of artist that make money off of sexualizing women in art because it’s just not something I should do- with men, I stay away from high amounts of flowers. Different strokes for different folks, but I don't want to soften or feminize men in my work. Flowers are very beautiful and there’s lots of ways you can work with them, but rather than try to figure out how I can work with these beautiful colors and patterns, I thought about how I can put the uncommon with black men. So I started grabbing sticks and marble and roofing material. I really started digging it and I wasn’t seeing anything like this.

VET: I always interpreted your subjects with the heads turned away as in a state of depression. Is that a theme you were going for?

BJ: As a person who doesn’t like art-talk and explaining a lot, I think that’s the job of the artist- there needs to be a dialogue that happens with art. This is also the reason I don’t do pop art because there is no dialogue that can happen. For instance, Beyonce. She’s phenomenal, but if I were to just paint a picture of her no matter how good, it still ends up being just her. The real responsibility of art, like with Solange’s A Seat At The Table or Beyonce’s Lemonade, is to create a dialogue, When I do these pieces with the men, I take their faces away because the face is the first thing you cue in on. You make a connection when you make eye contact. So once I remove the eyes from a piece all together I remove their ability to make a connection, forcing them to do a double take and spend more time with the piece.

There’s also the element of the black identity being distorted and covered up to fit another person’s narrative. So when I block their faces, it’s an idea about how they’ve blocked our history. That’s the real reason that their faces are blocked out because it forces you to make a real connection about how we’ve had our identities covered up.

VET: What future projects can we look forward to from you?

BJ: So much! Installations performances, paintings, sculptures, I’m planning on finally painting a face (laughs). Just more dope shit. I’m constantly working on projects simultaneously that way I don't ever become creatively bogged down on one thing. I’m always presenting in three solo shows, so it’s going to be good.