huhhigh on the walls above our heads, paintings of clouds hang around the South London Gallery. It’s coming again and it gets more and more restless as we watch. Alvaro Barrington used concrete to paint the clouds, planed and troweled them onto beautifully painted, high-quality Hermès yak wool blankets. As the storm approaches, the support turns to burlap. As much as these paintings look back to JMW Turner or to Constable’s cloud studies, there are also abstract expressionism and informalism. It’s action painting without the fear, unless you’re concerned about covering luxury blankets with construction concrete. This clash of materials, with one plundering the other, is part of the point of these heady paintings, and one of the various ways in which the artist creates his humiliated and impure art, which attempts to capture the textures, complexity and inequalities of the modern world.
Born in 1983 in Venezuela to the son of Grenadian and Haitian migrant workers, Barrington grew up in Grenada and Brooklyn. He studied painting in New York and then at the Slade in London, where he currently lives. You never know what he’s going to do or where his art will go. Artists often complained that they were ‘skied’ by whoever hung their pictures so far on the wall that you couldn’t see them well, but clouds are meant to be seen from afar; otherwise you are in the fog.
Barrington’s show is not so much an exhibition of discrete individual works as an installation masquerading as an old-fashioned academy or salon hangout. It’s a good way to deal with the SLG’s high single space, which was completed in 1891, when such curatorial arrangements were common. Barrington has adapted the ways of the 19th century photo gallery to delight in the complexities of the present and an imagined near future.
Spider the Pig, Pig the Spider takes as one of its starting points the inequalities between north and south, exacerbated by the climate crisis, globalization and industrialization. Beneath the clouds, the paintings and drawings that command attention at more human eye level are presented in bulky concrete, aluminum and shiny steel frames. As many architectural devices as frames, reminiscent of brutalism and high-gloss corporate decor, they give way, on the opposite long wall, to frames of brightly painted painted wooden slats and corrugated metal. These are meant to remind us of the ad hoc construction work of a poorer south, of cheap building materials and the favella. It reminds me of the Brazilian Tropicália, remade as flashy poverty-chic. Where do the frames end and the paintings begin? They’re all broken. Barrington alternates these cumbersome objects with roughly painted banana leaves.
All this seems like a big step towards the giant sculpted spider of Peppa Pig and Louise Bourgeois, both of whom are referenced in Barrington’s paintings. These creatures prove themselves in the pink limbs, cartoonish fingers and trotters, and furry, gray, and black arachnid appendages that cross their surfaces. Babies fantasy meets adult darkness, you might say, except there is no darkness more horrifying than childhood.
Except it’s not really Peppa and not really Bourgeois’ Mom or that populate Barrington’s erratic, unruly works. Somehow, George Orwell’s Napoleon, the pig dictator in Animal Farm, and Anansi the West African folktale spider are in it too. I’m worried about the pig and the spider. Are they an item? And then there’s the 80s songs, the riffs on other artists, and the autobiographical details that litter Barrington’s layered and sometimes confusing art; it took me days to master.
It’s all enough to get you started climbing the walls, which are themselves painted in bands and blocks of even color, a sort of color-coded index of weather and light, polluting sunsets, nightfall and sunrise, and gray afternoons.
The whole experience is like a massive immersive video game with multiple levels, wormholes, diversions and escape hatches. It’s hard to know where you are. This sense of being disconnected and trapped between worlds signals the contradictions and contrasts of Barrington’s own peripatetic life.
In one work, a game map from Nintendo’s Super Mario World provides a backdrop, much like a fragment of ancient cartography. Trotters and spider legs are sprayed and smeared on the lower surfaces of his glazed paintings, abstracted in compound brushstrokes, casting shadows on the layers below, which themselves repeat the same shapes or echo in accents of heavily brushed color. These are often reminiscent of the loose rags and licks of other painters. It’s easy to lose yourself in these box-like agglomerations, which also contain reproductions of old monochrome photographs of city barracks and sidewalks with passersby, a towering Brooklyn Bridge, and other cityscapes printed on acetate and sandwiched in their multiple layers. I start to see things that aren’t there or are just shiny reflections of the works hanging on the opposite wall. Behind the images are areas of canvas stitched and sewn with brightly colored thread – a reference perhaps to a spider’s web.
Sometimes works by other artists are attached to the surface – an obvious sketch drawing of a man in his underpants, Casting Sexy Twinky Guy, from a series of gay porn drawings by Dutch artist Dorus Tossijn, who was in the Slade with Barrington, who also has supplied a small oil painting of Rihanna wearing a Giambattista Valli dress. Then there are the lines “I bless the rains down in Africa” from the horrific 1982 song Africa, repeated by the soft rock band Toto (inexplicably, the official video of the song has over 694 million views on YouTube). over the surface of one painting, and lyrics from Rick James’s 1981 Ghetto Life printed over another.
Bursting with visual references and optical intrigue, low-culture jokes and high-end art references, Barrington mixes the personal, the political, social and the idiosyncratic. Sometimes you have to get up close, squeeze your eyes and peer through the glass surfaces to see the world inside. The more I pick up on the details, the more I get lost. Look, there’s a helicopter. And here are some Ellsworth Kelly plant drawings, redrawn by Barrington and with the letters ICU repeated over them. The initials stand for both Intensive Care and the text message abbreviation for “I see you.” You look at his paintings and they look at you.
By following intuition and calculation, Barrington plays the painting game on several simultaneous levels. People still talk about post-internet art, but all art is now post-internet. Though resolutely handmade, Barrington’s paintings belong to a world totally entangled in both the real and the virtual. His many references and materials are heirs to Robert Rauschenberg’s commodious approach, which predicted much of our interconnected world, without having the net to fall back on. It’s impossible to say that Barrington is a generation ushering in a new kind of painting, but he could be, even if it’s somewhere between a pig and a spider.