Artist to Artist Interview: Gregory Coates x Sharon Louise Barnes Discuss How Materials and Process Create Meaning
Meet Sharon Louise Barnes. Meet Gregory Coates. If you investigate their work, it becomes apparent why these brilliant, Black visual artists were brought together. They occupy a similar space that uses materials as a way to create expression. It's abstract. It's process driven. It's true to them.
In this Artist to Artist interview, let Gregory guide the conversation to learn more about Sharon's artwork...
GREGORY COATES: Greetings, it’s a pleasure to have your time, let me begin with saying I admire your art, process and dedication. How would you define yourself? Where were you born and grew up?
SHARON LOUISE BARNES: First, thank you and I’m deeply honored to have this interview. So let’s see – I think I’d simply define myself as a creative soul seeking truth. And no, I’m not full of it, that’s really me. I’m basically a nerd who gets excited thinking about stuff like ontology and post-modernist semiotics. My innate curiosity and quest for meaning, along with a crazed compulsion to create things is what defines me.
I was born in Sacramento, California, but was raised in South Los Angeles. Branches of my father’s family came to Northern California in the late 1800’s from black settlements in Canada and from Washington, D.C. My mother’s people were Cape Verdeans who immigrated here in the early 1900’s probably to escape the famine that existed on those islands then. I don’t know if anyone in my family tree was an artist. I’m sure they were all pretty well focused on surviving -- although my grandmother owned a catering business and I heard she could sculpt a pretty nice swan out of a block of ice.
GREGORY COATES: When did you discover you wanted to make art?
SHARON LOUISE BARNES: I have always made either art or music, and can’t remember a time when I didn’t. I drew pictures like all kids do, but it was my 5th grade teacher who completely changed my life when he taught us to draw the sphere, cone, cube and cylinder. My brain almost exploded and I started drawing everything. Then my mother bought me my first set of oil paints and brushes when I was about thirteen.
GREGORY COATES: Were you trained, self taught or have a mentor?
SHARON LOUISE BARNES: I’m primarily self-taught, although I’ve also studied at Otis in Los Angeles, and had many mentors. My art history professor in my early years of college was the renowned artist Samella Lewis, who opened me to the world to serious art, along with writers Quincy Troupe and Stanley Crouch who were all pioneering the Black Studies Department at Cal State Dominguez Hills. But my true mentors have been other artists. Willie Robert Middlebrook, Michael Massenburg, June Edmonds and a number of other Los Angeles artists were part of a group called The Collective. We had great conversations with each other and with the wonderful John Outterbridge who sparked my interest in installation and the symbolic utilization of space and materials.
GREGORY COATES: Your work speaks to me in many visual languages, for example it has the feeling of being a drawing, then it occupies sculpture, and on occasion, I feel installations. Can you tell me more about how you view your work?
SHARON LOUISE BARNES: All that you mention is true, but it was not always the case. I started out as a representational oil painter, which requires drawing, composition and color. For several years, I lived with an amazing realist painter who was a stickler about teaching me Renaissance formalist techniques. But I could feel this was not my art. Instead, I loved working in collage and assemblage, until I embraced the fact that I’m an abstractionist with an interest in materials and multiple disciplines. I enjoy making two-dimensional work, but also love to create art that stands on its own architecture, or hangs from ceilings, or climbs walls. I intend to be more involved with installation.
GREGORY COATES: I see Interior Space and Exterior Space. Can you elaborate on it for me?
SHARON LOUISE BARNES: Long discussions can be had on this question from the standpoint of psychology, quantum science and philosophy. In a recent sculpture, I expose the wire armature so that the armature inhabits both the interior and exterior space. So what implications could arise from this? These questions can be so interesting to explore, and I never feel disappointed if the questions remain unsolved. It’s the process of thinking about them that I love.
GREGORY COATES: I notice both color and shape but I wanted to ask, how important is color in your work?
SHARON LOUISE BARNES: I always have to respect color. Color is going to exert its importance, even if I’m not intentionally manipulating color theory. I also have to be aware that color has diverse cultural meanings that can impact viewers accordingly. Lately, I’ve been working quite a bit with black. Black makes such a powerful statement when used alone. Then every color you place against black in a work of art also becomes powerful, even though those colors will have to exist within black’s context of the work.
GREGORY COATES: Again, looking at your works, my eyes move over the shapes and forms, tell me how important movement is to you?
SHARON LOUISE BARNES: It’s interesting you ask because I have been thinking about that a lot in my current series of paintings and sculptures. My recent sculpture called “Stand” is a study in swirling tornado-like movement but it simultaneously stands immobile, signifying resistance. It takes its stand, and makes the viewer circumambulate it. Another recent abstract collage painting has a large mass appearing to propel against an assembled group of many diverse things, almost like a punching motion. I call it “Intolerance of Difference” from an Audre Lorde interview I was listening to at the time.
GREGORY COATES: Thinking about your materials, is gravity something you consider in your works?
SHARON LOUISE BARNES: I have always been enraptured by levitation and flying. It’s a personal symbol from my dream states, and it’s also a cultural symbol. African lore had been carried over into stories of escaped slaves who were said to have magically flown away. I love hanging sculptural works from the ceiling. It is a powerful symbol for defying the weight of one’s condition. And it makes you look up.
GREGORY COATES: Where do you source your material and is there a connection to them?
SHARON LOUISE BARNES: I’ll use any material that speaks to me. Detritus and scraps found on the street, guitar strings that my son left in my house, and especially a number of industrial materials that are usually found in a laborer’s hands like chicken wire and tarpaper. My favorite sources are the city streets, people’s discarded stuff, and Home Depot. Of course, I also use normal art materials as well. But my ancestors came from rough circumstances and they created everything out of very little or nothing. So I have a deeply spiritual and cultural connection to using rough materials and making something significant out of them.
GREGORY COATES: You've mentioned admiration for my work, what connection do you have to the artwork that I create?
SHARON LOUISE BARNES: Materials and process seem to be smack in the middle of your practice, just as it is in mine. I know you’ve used industrial materials and many unconventional things that amaze me. Your work bends toward minimalism more than mine, but we certainly appear to share a philosophical passion to explore how materials and process create meaning. We also share the investigation of the space inhabited between painting and sculpture. So, either we both really enjoy such inquiries, or we simply enjoy using cheap materials (laughter). Seriously, I respect your fearlessness to experiment with your ideas.
GREGORY COATES: How do you find inspiration? What turns you on?
SHARON LOUISE BARNES: I’m very inspired by writers and poets from Audre Lorde to Jay-Z. I also respond to socio-political conditions. But there is inspiration to be found everywhere. Everything inspires me. Being an artist who inhales all forms of art, and is fortunate to have such interesting life experiences and travels – that’s what turns me on.
GREGORY COATES: What do you want to be known for as your contribution in the art world?
SHARON LOUISE BARNES: I want to be among the cadre of black female abstractionists whose work is part of an historic body of art created by African-Americans in this time, expanding our aesthetic ideas as well as our socio-political thoughts.
GREGORY COATES: What’s next for you and/or what would you like to see in your future?
SHARON LOUISE BARNES: My next project is for a terminal in LAX International Airport and I have a solo show coming up in a LA gallery. But I definitely want to exhibit more on the east coast. I’m also formulating a series of abstract collage paintings that integrate documentation about several of my African-American ancestors who fought in the American Revolutionary War, hoping to find a museum that will show these. But, my future will always be filled with practice, practice practice. Of course, exhibiting alongside Gregory Coates some day would be a major blast. Every artist wants to engage in dialog with the artists they admire. It’s an extension of the art, isn’t it?
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