Barnaby Barford is ‘brilliantly puckish and something of an agent provocateur,’ writes Alun Graves, Senior Curator of Ceramics and Glass Collection at the V&A. ‘By seduction and guile, his work exposes us to our inner frailties, prejudices and desires, holding up a mirror to us both metaphorically, as well – on occasion – as physically. Few are so incisive and insightful.’
London-based, British artist Barnaby Barford (b.1977) graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2002 with an MA in Ceramics and Glass, and has been Associate Lecturer at Central Saint Martins since 2004. He has been represented by David Gill Gallery since 2005, and has exhibited internationally, with major solo shows across Europe and the USA, and a survey show at MOCA, Virginia, in 2013. His work has been acquired by many public and private collections including the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, the Museum of Fine art, Houston, Texas, and the National Libraries of France and the Netherlands. He has received several commissions from companies such as Louis Vuitton, and has a permanent public artwork in north east London.
Barford’s first ceramic sculptures reworked mass-market and antique found porcelain figurines to create scenarios that offered a witty, cultural critique; more recent works have seen the development of his instinct for satire into biting social commentary. Barford’s ever-expanding visual language is rooted in his early use of familiar iconography to subvert the telling of ancient cautionary tales within a contemporary context, while his caustic take on the folly of man is clearly influenced by Chaucer, Swift and Hogarth. But Barford is as compassionate as he is perceptive, as interested in our hopes, dreams and aspirations as his is in our fears, frailties and failures. Driven by a fascination with words and language, he explores what it is to be human in the 21st century.
As a multi-media artist, Barford continually takes his practice in new directions, most recently working with large-scale installation, time-lapse film and works on paper, but he consistently returns to ceramics, utilising mass and industrial production processes. He achieved major critical success in 2015 with the Tower of Babel, a six-metre tower of 3000 bone china replicas of London shops, exhibited at the V&A. Barford placed derelict and charity shops at the sculpture’s base while exclusive boutiques and auction houses sat at the peak, forming a systemic accrual of wealth and extravagance. Buildings were priced according to their place within the economic structure, forcing the viewer to confront their own position in the hierarchy of consumption.
The Tower signalled the beginning of Barford’s examination of the way our aspirations are almost wholly expressed through acquisition, our identities and longings laid bare in properties, post codes, brands and retail outlets. He deepened this line of enquiry in ME WANT NOW (2016), exploring loss of community, empathy fatigue, our conviction that success is measured in terms of growth, and our complicity in this dystopian state of affairs. A menagerie of ceramic animals, some endangered, all hunted by man, crossed the gallery floor in an obedient line while other, trophy-like, animal heads were mounted on mirrors. Seven ostensibly virtuous words including change, power and glory, were repeated in frenzied compositions in a series of works on paper.
Barford’s most recent body of work, MORE MORE MORE (2019), continues his exploration of the politics of happiness but with a new source of inspiration, the apple, nature’s ancient primary object onto which we have long projected our myriad fears and desires. The apple contains all the dilemmas and dualities of the human condition. It is innocence and experience, sin and redemption, death and resurrection, youth and decay, love and sexuality. These tropes are found in the earliest texts and illustrations, and resonate through myth, religion and Old Master paintings, as well as in secular stories from Snow White to William Tell. The apple tree is intrinsic to pioneer folklore and was dubbed ‘the great American fruit,’ by Ralph Waldo Emmerson, perhaps referring to the idea of the United States as a second Eden.
The apple also embodies our complex drive for ‘more,’ a compulsion that mitigates against happiness yet propels us to extraordinary feats of achievement. Thinking about that fateful ‘more’ moment in the Garden of Eden lead Barford to create his monumental installation, The Apple Tree, embedding the apple in Barford’s practice as his central muse. His most theatrical work to date, measuring 3mx3mx3m, The Apple Tree is activated when an apple is bought and snapped off the branch, inveigling the apple-picker in a re-enactment of the Fall of Mankind. Each apple is unique, bearing a single word – chaos, courage, nostalgia, populism, fame, truth, lies, youth – bringing to mind Medieval trees of virtues and vices.
As we prefix the words with ‘more,’ they take on an ominous insistence but are also infused with Barford’s trademark humour: our desires are poignant, funny and troubling. Hand-painted in oils, every apple is a work of art in its own right and Barford intends to make an annual ‘crop’ over the next two decades, so that it will be possible to collect twenty, each series a record of his personal response to the state of the world. Materials, shapes, colours and words will vary with each crop and, of course, the meanings of the words will alter as our experiences and perceptions change along with the world.
The collection also includes a large-scale sculpture of an apple, Land of Hope and Glory, three new series of works on paper and a time-lapse film, More, featuring an apple scarified with the word ‘more.’ Over time, the fruit begins to rot but the decay is imperceptible; after 15 minutes, the change is startling. ‘Like all my work, this show is a critique of society, but people respond in very different ways,’ says Barford. ‘They might be touched by the words on the apples, happy to participate by activating the sculpture. We all need more empathy, more emotion, more community.’ There is a welcome lack of prescription to Barford’s work, a humility that compels him to examine society’s ills, short-comings and anxieties in order to reflect on his own.
Barnaby Barford (b. 1977) graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2002. An internationally exhibited artist, he has had solo shows across Europe and the USA, including a recent exhibition charting his practice to date at MoCA Virginia. Represented by David Gill Gallery in London, his work is included in many public and private collections, such as The V&A Museum in London and MoFA in Houston, Texas. He has received many prestigious commissions including Louis Vuitton and a permanent public artwork in North East London.