Wayne Barker recently bought a new BMW. The dealer made a song and dance about the transaction not only because it upped sales figures for the month but also because “they had never met an artist that makes money”, recalls Barker, perched on a stool in his loft-cum-studio in Johannesburg’s Bertrams.
Not many BMW drivers live on this side of town in an actual loft (not one of those tiny faux versions property developers sell for a bomb) and make a habit of downing a few whiskies at breakfast. They probably don’t wear trilby hats and dark-rimmed glasses either. Or do they?
Art is a business like any other these days, as Barker’s new acquisition affirms. And why shouldn’t a mature artist (early 50s) be able to enjoy the fruits of his labour like everyone else?
If you wanted to be sensational and stick your neck out, you could say Barker has reached the pinnacle of his career – his last solo exhibition at the Everard Read in Jo’burg, Normal Man, sold out. This wasn’t surprising; it was probably the most well-attended opening since Africa Remix caused a traffic jam outside the Jo’burg Art Gallery in the late Noughties. Art historians might peg his artistic height a decade earlier, around the mid-Nineties when his renditions of Pierneef were covered in South African brands and colonial motifs, thereby drawing a line between that era and the then (and now) white capitalist machine.
Of course, there have been some other interesting bodies of work since then, such as his pop-esque collage paintings in which African curio objects are combined with neon words or symbols. The Afro vibe continued with beaded “paintings” – large beaded canvases displaying his slightly uncomfortable way of collapsing his interest in the female body with the landscape tradition of painting and the exploitative mining industry, which abused the land as if it were some prostitute.
One night, two exhibitions
Since a memorable experience at a New York-based silkscreen company, where he observed professional art makers who reproduce the likes of Lichtenstein, the famous American pop artist, he is now not only working with a new medium but is also on a different plak in terms of content.
This is all just as well as he is upping the ante with two exhibitions, opening on the same night at the Everard Read in Jo’burg and in Cape Town.
As he observes, “only uncle William” (Kentridge) has probably enjoyed double openings in this country.
Both exhibitions will present some familiar Barker work; the Cape Town show will boast beaded works and, despite the fact that he claims he has “forgiven Pierneef” and has got over wrestling with his work, there will be a painting referencing the famous South African artist on exhibit too.
Those who recall the uproar that his Zulu Lulus – a work based on a Fifties-designed product using black women’s bodies as swizzle sticks he found in a sex shop – evoked in the early Nineties when they were first went on display at the Everard Read might be surprised to find they have been given new life in neon colours in a silkscreening process by the slick New York studio. Those works might go down in much the same way as they did decades ago – uneasily, as they should.
The focus of both exhibitions, however, is on this new body of silkscreened works. Is it any coincidence that Barker has settled on a medium that is centred on reproduction at a time that coincides with his popular appeal? “No, actually, it is the medium that I like. I think, if anything, I have become more of a socialist, because my work will be more affordable now. I used to do digital prints for years but I felt slightly dishonest with digital because I don’t know whether it will last and have any archival value.”
Reproducing existing imagery
Silkscreening does work for Barker in the sense that he has, since his early Pierneef-obsessed days, been reproducing existing imagery. His collage painting-cum-sculptures with wooden masks and neon were in this vein too. It makes sense; he studied art (for two years at Michaelis) in the Eighties during the height of postmodernism and is of a generation that has been happily unburdened by the pursuit of originality. This is just as well as the weight of art history is a heavy one.
“I am always humbled when I go and visit the Prada [museum]. I feel like I am swimming in this big ocean.”
The Western art canon feeds a series of prints, with work by Goya, Picasso and Dali appearing. It would probably make more sense to describe his form of reproduction as requotation – he doesn’t distort or subvert the images, he simply “quotes” them and uses them as motifs in compositions. In other words, they are probably about as meaningful as a banana in a still life.
Yes, he is probably doing that – making still lifes from other still lifes. Not that he describes it as such. You would be hard-pressed to get him to discuss his art in any highfalutin or art-philosophical terms – is it the result of an art education interrupted all those years ago by a stint in the army, or a way of maintaining that supposed aura of ambiguity that artists like to preserve about their art?
“I am not conscious [about what I am doing]. I am a rubbish from Valhalla from Pretoria,” he says.
The internet has widened his interest, going beyond Pierneef, enabling him to download images of anything from Van Gogh’s still lifes to the famous Brazilian football player Pele and the first image taken of the Moon, all of which have found their way into his new editioned prints.
The theme and central image
Finding a book titled Photos that Changed the World crystallised the theme for the show and set him on this track, not only of reproducing some of these famous images but also others, though through the title of the show he reverses the title or process as he believes that the “world changes images” rather than the other way around.
The central image at the heart of his art of requotation is Grenade Boy, a reproduction of a Diane Arbus photograph titled Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City (1962). For Barker, it embodies the perplexing forms of violence in our time. “What the fuck is going in the world when you get a kid loving
Isis [Islamic State] threatening to blow themselves up and those around them?” Barker reproduces this image along with the “Je suis Charlie” slogan.
He steers the conversation to the medium rather than the content of the work and regales me with stories of how he bought and struggled with the large silkscreening equipment that greets you when you enter his studio-cum-loft. Art might be becoming a business in South Africa, but the supporting industries, like the professional silkscreeners he encountered in New York, do not exist here yet, he says.
This forced him to invest in equipment to create and reproduce imagery and to employ staff to assist in production. This has turned his studio into a functioning business of sorts with regular hours – though a whisky bottle is always nearby and is seen as part of lubricating the creative force that is Barker.
Certainly, the machine has allowed him to cannabilise images like never before, probably because it can be done much more quickly than with paint or the even more labour-intensive hand-beading process. Unlike Andy Warhol, the famous American pop artist who embraced silkscreen printing and reproduction of images to make a point about art and commerce in the Sixties, Barker can’t resist imbuing his images with traces of the artist’s hands, which come in the form of abstract painterly gestures layered over the reproduced images.
Some character and playfulness
These are quintessentially Barker-ish, rendered in bright colours and reminiscent of the marks that he used to deride and challenge his reproductions of Pierneef’s works. In this way, these collages are all stamped with the Barker signature. This is essential to making art, or being successful at it – your art has to look like your art, even if you appropriate your images from that large store cupboard called Western art.
That said, success isn’t easy for an artist to process, especially for an old-school artist like Barker, who has enjoyed embodying the character of the stereotypical artist with his trilby hat, dark-rimmed glasses and preference for whisky rather than coffee for breakfast. As such, between discussions about his art, he is quick to relate tales of his misbehaviour and rebelliousness – like being arrested after a flight from New York during which he painted while drinking too much gin.
In a way, however, these stories are a comfort; though his fortunes have changed and he finds himself running a business, he has not lost his “character” and playfulness, which have become as recognisable as the colourful marks that deride and erode every image he regurgitates.
The World that Changed the Image will run at the Everard Read in Cape Town and Jo’burg until March 4