Artspan sits down with collage artist Gerald Barnes
Your collages are like boxes of memories. How do you choose your images? Are any of them specific to your life? Your own relatives? Or are they historical figures?
The images I use reflect the things that interest me – art, literature, architecture, history, travel, graphic design and the human condition. I have a large library of material that I’ve collected over the years, ephemera, old magazines and newspapers, stamps and notes. I also use my own drawings and photographs. Usually I select one particular image and then build around that. I have in the past used family photos but there are only so many times you can use Grandma and Grandpa! Some images are of historical figures. Mario García Menocal was President of Cuba from 1913 -1921 and looked like a Hollywood movie star.
Can you describe your method in making collages? Do you use layers? Is the surface of each work heavily textured or fairly smooth?
I use wood panels as my base because they’re sturdy and take quite a bit of abuse especially if I sand or scrape the surface. Sometimes I paint the background and sometimes I cover it over entirely with paper. The images are then layered one on top of the other. Sizing and layering are perhaps the most critical procedures. Sometimes there is no other way to evaluate a piece other than gluing everything down and then if it’s wrong and is not working for me there is no option but to sand it down and start all over again. I add a lot of detail, adding text, stamps, pictures or my own art.
I create fake coats of arms, extend postal marks and add signatures or sometimes whole lines of text. Sometimes I transfer images one on top of the other, sometimes the title of the piece is found in these small details. Nothing is ever as it seems! I use pastels to soften edges and add shadows. Usually surfaces are smooth but occasionally I add paint using a palette knife and this can leave some texture.
You are very astute! I love history, especially the period between the 1890s and the end of the WW I. Being Irish, our history is interwoven with that of Britain and her colonial past. And yes, I have traveled quite a bit all over the world including in South Asia - India, Nepal, Sri Lanka etc. The period is fascinating – empires and economies collapsed while others expanded. And during this time the military uniform was exalted almost to a fetish with extravagant plumed helmets, complicated strands of plaited gold braid draped across chests and so many medals it’s a wonder their tunics didn’t rip apart with the weight! Civilian dress was a little more restrained and very elegant. I use these images to create an atmosphere of introspection and reflection to ask ourselves the “what if” questions of life.
Oh, so many! I’ve always loved the work of Fred Otnes, Nick Bantock and the amazing Brazilian artist, Eduardo Recife. Although their work is completely different to mine, Francis Beacon, Patrick Graham, Luis Garcia-Nerey, and Miguel Cond? are just a few of the artists that inspire me with their courage and ability to express their vision. And how could I not acknowledge the whole legacy of Renaissance, Medieval and North European art, which has provided me with endless resources and inspiration of saints and sinners, outrageous wimples, doublets and ruffs!
“By His Own Design” the PBS documentary on the life and work of Emile Norman is an inspiration to us all to follow our dreams to be all we can be as artists. Although I’m a ferocious reader I can’t think of any piece of literature that especially inspired my art but I’m in awe – and maybe a little scared - of the creative process of writing.
Everyone gets a question from the Proust questionnaire, and here’s yours: “What characters in history do you most dislike?”
I guess I have to say anyone or system that denigrates the power of art or artists. The creative spirit is so unique and so valuable it is what keeps a civilized society civilized.