The wild child of the local art scene enjoys his whisky and also works damned hard.
Wayne Barker has been the epitome of sex, drugs and fine art since he burst on to the South African art scene in the 1980s. The late art polymath Alan Crump described him thus in the introduction to Charl Blignaut’s 2000 book Wayne Barker: Artist’s Monograph: “Wayne Barker has always had problems with authority both at the level of the individual and that of a system” and “superficially, Barker’s work often possesses a cavalier quality and his personality appears to be that of a cultural cowboy reminiscent of the young Robert Rauschenburg of the mid-1950s in North America”.
It’s a late Friday morning with just days to go before his latest exhibition, Love Land, opens at the prestigious Circa Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg. The sun pours into a relaxed Barker’s airy first-floor studio in an old block of flats in Melville, Johannesburg.
On a table there’s one corked bottle with some white wine left in it, but it is the smell of linseed, thinners and oil paint, mixed with the aroma of freshly brewed espresso, that fills the air.
In the two rooms where he paints there are bouquets of used paintbrushes, painting knives, palettes, twisted oil paint tubes on and under the tables, and crumpled newspapers, a large kudu skin and sheets of white paper unsuccessfully protect the paint-stained wooden floor.
But there’s no evidence of the excesses that gave Barker his reputation as the wild child of local art. So has he, at 49, finally grown up?
“For me, the most important thing is to do the work now — it’s better to do the work than to be fucked in a bar and be miserable ... but it does happen,” he says with a smile.
So how much does he drink?
“About three bottles of whisky a week ... The problem is if I had a heavy night, I can’t work the next day. But I get some great ideas when I’m quite fucked in, say, a red-light district in Berlin ...
“Remember it? I take little notes, or the iPhone is such a great thing, I take photos or I type things. I also give work away when I’m drunk. People would come and they love the work and it’s 3am and I say ‘take it’ and I wake up the next morning and I’ve just given away a work worth 60 000 bucks. But you know what the Zulus say, what you give away is yours for ever.”
Is it the same as in writing — that it is sort of okay to write drunk, but one has to edit sober?
“Completely! Often the big paintings that I start when I am quite drunk ... you have to go back for the detail, or you start with detail, then you get drunk and then you have to go back for the detail.”
Barker is refreshingly candid.
“Obviously I have this reputation that I drink and love women, but at the end of the day I produce a lot of work. There’s this reputation of this bad boy — people were even scared to come to my studio, but I work like anyone, maybe more.”
He’s scrolling on his big Apple computer through hundreds of photographs of models he took over the years. “Models start as reference for painting, but they become beautiful photographs. And I don’t shag all the models ...” Then he gets distracted: “Erm, have I painted on the screen here?”
In her catalogue essay for his new exhibition, Carol Brown says although Barker remains “solidly grounded in technical and artistic competence, he is also what Baudelaire (and later Walter Benjamin) described as a flâneur”, the Parisian “urban wanderer who was streetwise and strolled through the arcades of the city becoming part of the fabric of contemporary culture”.
Barker is a Johannesburg flâneur. “Jo’burg is a hell of an interesting place ... just the culture and subcultures. I have an Orlando Pirates makaruba hat in the back of my car and I’ve got friends everywhere around this city. You interface with the city, you interface with the people. That’s how I was born. As a young child I caught buses; I was always exploring ...”
Love Land, mostly new work since his 25th retrospective last year, will be a mix of sculptures, watercolour and oil paintings, video installations and five massive beaded works continuing his “thing” with nationalist landscape artist JH Pierneef.
“Obviously I’ve been working on the Pierneef landscapes years ago, deconstructing the land we were born in to all of those political issues, putting objects on to it,” he explains.
“Now I’m purely using Pierneef landscapes as a found object — the land that we’re in and all that idealism is completely fucked now, but it is fucked in a good way because human beings have rights now.”
The five women who do the beading will all be at the exhibition opening. “They love making my work. It’s almost like beading by number and they question me: Why is it like this, why is it like that? So there’s a whole dialogue; I go to Cape Town every week ... it is quite a process.”
The exhibition is called Love Land because “I love being in South Africa. I don’t want to be anywhere else but in this weather. And I just love the land ...”
With the interview over and the photo shoot about to begin, Barker puts on a Panama hat. Why always the hat?
“When I was little I got a full cowboy outfit with the hat and I loved it.”
He has since become Crump’s cultural cowboy. “I’ve always loved the hat. I go into another disguise when I wear the hat to be the cowboy for the people: like fighting for the people by making art.
“Then this guy [with the hat], he is Wayne the Kid, or Wayne Still the Kid,” he laughs. “Or he’s kidding around. It’s a very difficult job to be kidding around in this painting business.”
Wayne Barkers exhibition Love Land runs at the Circa Gallery, Jellicoe Avenue, Rosebank, until October 6.