Randall Barnes visited by Erin Latham

I’m an hour early to meet Randall Barnes at the Individual Artists of Oklahoma Gallery on the historic Film Row in downtown Oklahoma City. We decide to meet here instead of his studio because Barnes has his first solo show hanging in the back gallery. After spending some time with the work before the artist arrives, I’m struck by how engaged and drawn into each piece I am becoming. Everything from the graphic patterns and textures, to the urban sprawl setting, to the intensity of the red painted on, or around each piece, is beckoning me back to reconsider each individually. Then I realize what it is specifically, it is the active nature of Barnes’ work. The woodcut paintings and panel pieces, are so full of action, that it is almost as if the moment you look away, the characters and the floral/geometric prints, will come to life. Randall’s woodcut paintings featuring the #RedShirtCollective seem the most active, I am repeatedly drawn to ‘catch’ the works in action. Randall Barnes is an emerging community engaged artist who advocates for the craft of graffiti removal (or the “buff”) and the resulting aesthetic in the urban landscape. 

I’ve read that academia was important for you in finding your aesthetic?

I’ve always been intrigued by art. When I went to college, I didn’t have any other ideas on what to do, I thought, there’s always art as an option, It was never a thing I decided on, I just felt like “what else is there that I should do?”  I took some time off from school and then I started at Rose State College, a few years later and was on a scholarship that promoted community involvement within the scholarship group and other leaders in the university. This led me to an internship with a local artist, Romy Owens, who emphasized taking an active role in the community. She talked about trying to be successful by giving to your community as well as receiving success from your community. Being an active participant, instead of just trying to take, and benefit from what is around you.

Besides school was there anything else that influenced what you’re making in the studio?

 While I was going to school I held a job with the local Oklahoma City Police Department, removing graffiti. It was me and two of my friends and we were driving around the city in a police van buffing out graffiti. In 3 years we painted over 250,000 square feet at 500 different locations. After watching the “Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal” which is a satirical documentary, about how graffiti removers are subconsciously creating abstract art, the idea of the aesthetics of graffiti removal began making an appearance in my work. After I watched the documentary, I realized that the same mindset I have when I’m making work in the studio, is also what I have when I’m painting over graffiti on a wall.  It’s more about the attention to detail I have when working in the studio and the zen of painting. The actual graffiti removal became a source for some of the ideas in the work. I got hooked on the buff.

Explain!

The Buff is the street name for graffiti removal. When I start removing, I only painted the specific areas like bricks or fence panels, that have the tag on them. Since we go back to these places over and over what happens is that it ends up creating an almost patchwork quilt type pattern. I began thinking about the aesthetics of graffiti removal as more than just covering something up and silencing someone’s voice, and started thinking about it like decorative paintings in and of themselves. The aesthetics are more than just a cover up, because we’re going back to these places so often. 

I’m curious how the idea of removing graffiti is received? Have viewers reacted negatively to the idea of covering someone’s artwork?

There are mixed reviews about graffiti removal. For some people we are providing a service that helps their community, for others that’s not the case. Yes, I have covered up people’s artwork but I approach being a graffiti remover as more than just silencing someone’s voice. In tagging, the idea is usually how much can you tag? How far can you take your tag? Can you cover six square miles? Can you hit multiple buildings in that distance? There was one artist who tagged from Interstate 35 to Interstate 44, and Interstate 40 to Interstate 240, which is about the equivalent of 6 square miles in either direction, a hundred times in two weeks. We were going around buffing him out. In the same way that he was getting across the city, we were also buffing that far. It becomes a game of, how much can we hit the city? How far can we buff? Although we’re approaching it from a professional manner, with permission and the tagger is not, it’s the same idea.

Yes, graffiti removal is the antithesis of graffiti, but it also provides a tagger a new place to paint. When they paint, then I paint, and so on, we’re going back and forth. We’re going to the same places to buff every week, we can only paint at these places and add to the works that are there. It’s a reciprocal relationship where they’re painting and I’m painting. They definitely don’t see it that way, or some do, but, other artists feel like they’re being silenced. That it’s their expression and I shouldn’t remove it, however yes, it may be your expression but, it’s still on someone’s property that doesn’t want it on there. You can’t really expect it to stay up. Graffiti is ephemeral in nature. I’m not anti graffiti, but I am pro graffiti removal. 

Have you seen the graffiti artist/tagger and the graffiti remover relationship as a collaborative effort? Would a collaboration with those two entities be something you would want to try?

I’ve never considered it a collaboration, but only because I haven’t thought of it that way. I don’t know if it’s important to think of it like that. I know some people view it as an “us versus them” thing. I have competitive nature and like the idea of a nemesis, or opposition, the idea of going up against someone and competing with them.  For example there was a tunnel in the concrete river that runs through Oklahoma City, that everything drains into and there are some tunnels on the North side of this river that are completely muraled out.  In one it says “we run this city” along with a lot of other imagery and tags, my friends and I decided to buff out the entire 100 yard tunnel and leave only the square with the “we run this city”. We did it because of the competition, but within two weeks there were already multiple pieces up in the tunnel. Again we covered artwork and “won” but they were also given another opportunity to paint. It’s the dichotomy of us buffing out the work, but the nature of their artwork is that it is not permanent and that’s part of how the relationship works. 

Do you feel like part of graffiti is in the act, the action, the risk, that if there were no removers it would be less exciting for the tagger?

Yes, I talked to one guy who is into the reciprocal relationship between artist and remover, and he’s more concerned with actual graffiti, no buffs, just paint over graffiti with graffiti. The layering idea is also something that’s in my work where the work becomes busy and full and there is a lot going on.  For me it represents the layers of graffiti/graffiti removal/graffiti/graffiti removal etc. etc. in urban environments. I’m intrigued by full busy images. In part I may be just making things I want to see but hoping people enjoy it. 

Where did the ideas for your current body of work come from?

I knew that I wanted to create a narrative and have it be graphic in aesthetics, but not necessarily a comic book or animation. I wanted it to have technical painting, but for it to continue to have a graphic and cinematic feel. I’ve always been influenced by movies and pop culture, as well as stories and myth. Working with those themes I started creating self-portraits, that were mock historical paintings and Napoleon-esque, but those were pretty stale, and boring. I also wanted to incorporate hip-hop into the work. I am heavily influenced by the Wu Tang Clan, who were the first hip-hop group to sign together but also as individuals, with the idea that with the success of the group would also come the success of the individuals, or the idea of the community helping the individual. I became influenced by the philosophies of Eastern aesthetics, where the significance in the composition and the overall look, has a decorative quality to it. I started thinking about graffiti removal as design or decoration and I began using floral patterns, geometric patterns from actual patterned fabric to create the aesthetic. My artwork began to mimic that aesthetic and in the real life removal job that graffiti removal is actually something to be seen not just passed over. 

I notice lots of cross cultural references in the work, how do these come together?

 A lot of the content and aesthetic is about blending, I’m influenced by Eastern ideas with a Western aesthetic and vice versa. For example in the piece “He’s Gun Sick” the tree on the left and the image in the center right are a pattern called Willoware, which was a porcelain pattern that was popular at the turn of the 20th century. Stores like Montgomery Ward sold it so that the everyday housewife could own it. I studied the pattern and the connotation of it and what it represents, as well as the history and found out that willowware is an English porcelain knockoff, of a Dutch porcelain knockoff, of actual Chinese porcelain. It was originally made around the time that the East India Trading Company was first in Asia and the porcelain trade was beginning. This cultural exchange of something as simple as a pattern is critical to the work. Kung Fu is similar when you look at the similarities of the Spaghetti Western’s referencing old Kung Fu movies and vice versa. Including movies like the “Magnificent Seven” a western inspired by “Seven Samurai”, a famous Japanese movie. I started adding the Western hero with the Eastern hero, and creating a pop culture exchange and appropriating images from Kung Fu movies and Westerns. I don’t intend to appropriate in a negative way, but it’s more about recognizing the exchange between the two entities. 

Talk about the idea of the everyman and how that plays a role in the narrative of the work?

In Kung Fu movies the characters like blacksmiths, butchers, chefs, and ceramicists are the heroes that have an unknown type of Kung Fu, the rhythms of their craft turn out to be actual Kung Fu. Every man is capable of greatness if they are willing to work and make the necessary sacrifices. Sometimes those sacrifices are great, which also relates to the American dream, and the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. The literal translation of Kung Fu, is supreme skill from hard work or time spent at hard work and training. This is how I approach my art making. As well as the concepts for the work, it’s more about consistently working than the “divine inspiration” that just comes to you.  Whether that’s working through the down times when everything sucks and you’re dreading it, or making something that’s successful and moving forward. I am the “everyman” as much as the characters in those films. 

What is the “Red Shirt Collective”?

It’s a group of heroic kung fu artisans that I made up, but it’s an ambiguous Kung Fu tale, about graffiti removers. The Kung Fu heroes are hard working, trained graffiti removers, and advocating for the aesthetics of graffiti removal as well as the craft.

I noticed that each of the “characters” you’ve created in the Red Shirt Collective reference your appearance, why is that?

I started putting myself in all of the works. I’m every figure, and some of them have multiple figures. It started as “I’m the only model that I have regular access to”, and then it became humorous to put myself in the work multiple times. I began to relate the idea back to the “everyman” and that even the lowest guy on the totem pole can become something great. I used my own likeness for the regular everyman. 

Explain the technique of “woodcut painting”. How did you come across this idea?

The artist Carlos Colombino, who is a South American artist, he went to Europe and studied painting, typical art ed, came back to his home country and worked with a printmaker. He wanted to create an authentic style of artwork for his people and himself. He combined oil painting and woodcuts.  I saw his work in the Libertad de Expresión: the Art Museum of the Americas and Cold War Politics at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, OK. I loved it and at that time I was drawing on woodblocks frequently.  I was using a red pencil and building up the image layer by layer with a black or white pencil and color in parts. I found myself working on the blocks for long periods and people were telling me that the blocks drawn up like that, were more impressive than the prints coming off of them. I decided I would just try to incorporate both painting/drawing and carving together. In the newest works, parts of them are inked up with printing ink, parts are painted with oil paint, acrylic, gouache, or drawn with colored pencil. Most of that is because of how the textural surface qualities make certain parts of the image pop out or recede back. 

What is it like being an artist in this part of the country? How has the artist community had an effect on your work?

Being an artist in the Midwest, I don’t know anything other than that. I grew up here and have lived here my whole life; I don’t have any references to what it’s like to create work somewhere else. I’ve only just begun looking at more art in the state and surrounding areas in the last few years. Oklahoma specifically, the artist population is small compared to NYC or Chicago, which is good and bad. It’s a tight knit community, everyone knows everyone, and can help in some way but that also leads to a lot of the same artists getting all the big prizes. I’ve only been out of school a year, and have had a pretty successful first year. Which is amazing and also scary, because there’s this momentum you have to keep up. I received emerging artist awards, and am now competing with all the professional artists, people who have been doing this five years to twenty five or thirty years. I look forward to what that brings, whether that’s receiving more awards or opportunities, or not getting anything and being forced to create my own opportunities, What’s great is that in OKC and Tulsa, that the arts are increasing and there are a few areas around that have their own art scenes, you there is a lot of opportunity to experience art here in Oklahoma.

For more information on Randall please visit his website