Grant Barnhart's works are intricate orchestrations of fragments marrying contemporary, historical and mythical elements into cohesive narrative images. Being given the opportunity to interview Grant at this stage of his career has been a privilege as his work moves into uncharted territory.
In this interview he provides both abstract and practical insight into his work as well as his own observations on art in general.
How much planning and preparation goes into your work?
At times I feel like all I do is plan and prep for future projects. My house and studio are littered with random scribbles and notes that should guide me to the next painting or project, but at times look like nothing more than random notations and scribbles. On the quick end of things it can take a few days to comprise the ideas with my reference on hand.
And do you approach your personal works differently from commercial projects?
The commercial work is completely different. I get an assignment emailed to me and usually have 1-4 days to complete from start to finish. Most of the time is spent looking at low res. Images on my computer screen. The quality is so bad that it is pointless to print off because the ink will bleed together on the paper.
Your works seem to have strong narrative qualities. Is this deliberate and would you consider it part of your ‘style’?
Yes the narration in my work is extremely deliberate. I’m trying to form a conversation with an audience that may or may not even be there. I’m giving the viewer the opportunity probe inside my head and ask questions about what they are seeing.
And generally speaking, how would you characterise your works as a whole?
The idea of communication alone plays a major role in my work. I am the perfect example of modern isolated version of western culture. What limited interaction I have with people is either spent on a mobile phone or random emails throughout the day. I rarely leave my studio for days on end and form these rather strange conversations in my head that begin to grow in my paintings. The figures in my work usually stand-alone and form little to no bond with each other. I use graphite to define the sad and weighted space around my figures. Just when the space gets too melancholy I mix in subtle absurdities to poke fun at what I just created.
In my latest painting “Plan B: Proceed With Caution” there is a satellite falling from the top right corner. If one looks closely inside the satellite they will find the legs of my wife and I tumbling about during re-entry. Our legs are bare which leads me to explain we were making love in space until all hell broke loose. Hand-me-down versions of Batman and Spider-Man appear in my work too. This all forms into my “Amalgamation: The Over/Under Project”. Mixing graphite and oil on panel with a subtle absurdity on a relatively cold social commentary.
What tools and materials do you use and why?
Most of my work is graphite and oil on gessoed panel. I prefer the smooth surface to canvas.
"Every time I paint I run into new challenges..."
“Plan B: Proceed with Caution”
The initial concept was to base the basic design of the paintings around a Rauschenberg COBINE. I chose “Black Mail” (1958) for the basic foundation of the painting. Several sketches and concepts were formed on tracing paper. Writing notes and themes in a moleskin would help focus the ideas further. Once I had my ideas and the placement of my figures, I then researched detailed photo reference to base my drawings from.
After the drawing is complete I transferred the drawing to a clear acetate film and project the image on the 4’x6’ surface in my studio. I used an old elementary school projector given to me as a gift. My studio floor space is rather small so I have to manoeuvre around the projector with ease. It takes about a week to redraw the figures on the panel.
Once the line rendering is complete I spend another 2-3 days filling in the negative space with graphite pencils. After a long day with the graphite I tend to look like a coal miner coming out of the tunnel. I seal the drawing and get to work with thin oil washes. I build up transparent layers until I find the desired effect. Every time I paint I run into new challenges with the media and have to let the randomness of the washes take form.
How much of an influence has your environment/the Pacific Northwest been to you development in general and specifically in your work?
It has everything to do with my work. I’m supported by a group of friends and a gallerist that push me to think outside of the box even if the majority of the public don’t understand what I’m trying to accomplish just yet.
Most of the country looks to NYC and LA for hot contemporary art and living Seattle has allowed me to form this logistically poised bohemian movement with my gallery. Seattle is a great political town that encourages conversation through creative means. I think it is a matter of time before people start really talking about the Northwest and what it has to offer.
What would you say have been the most important things you’ve learned in regard to your work/self in the past few years? And what advice would you give other creatives?
Good advice to pass along is to be comfortable in one’s own skin and stand behind one’s ideas. Gut instinct is major too. Some of my hardest times in life were when I went against my gut instinct. It isn’t easy basing a career off being constantly judged and compared. It is okay to take risks and challenge yourself when pursuing a dream or a creative career.
"...one day you feel on top of the world and the next you feel you are climbing out of the sewer."
Would you choose a colour (it doesn’t have to be a favourite) and explain the ideas and feelings it generates for you?
Gunmetal grey isn’t a colour but rather a value. To me it is a weight I carry on my shoulders. The soft yellow you find in aged paper says timeless to me.
What are your thoughts on the categorization of arts between “high brow”, “low brow”, “fine art”, and “outsider art”?
The main purpose is to give a large majority of people a comfort zone when viewing art. These labels are no different than class distinction. In a society of news flashes, fast food and porn we need to know rather quickly what the hell we are looking at so we can assess, judge and critic at a swift rate. On the other hand many artists use these varying labels to find a community or group to swim around with. Isn’t it really important to feel welcomed and loved?
Do you feel these labels serve any purpose?
Terms, classifications or labels are really important when it comes to writing. Art critics and analysis need rules to follow just like any other job. Are they good, sure, are they bad, of course. Regardless they will always be around.
Would you choose an image (by anyone aside from yourself) that you think is “great” and explain what makes it special for you?
I would have to say anything by Robert Rauschenberg. “State” (1958), “Warbler” (1957), and “Memorandum of Bids” (1957). I look at his work and see the ability to create freedom and redefine convention and thought. It seems so timeless and screams revolution.
Are there any other arts that you practice outside your usual work or that you want to learn?
I generally paint with my hands so sculpting would be a nice escape.
What are you working on now? And what are your aspirations for the future?
I am currently gearing up for my solo at OKOK Gallery in November 2007. My aspiration for the future is to get better at my craft.
Ideally, what will you be doing in 10 years?
In 10 years I see myself daydreaming and working through my ideas. Pushing myself to do better work. Wondering where the hell my hair went.
Grant Barnhart Studio
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