It’s been a breakout year for interdisciplinary artist Barber ever since his intro to Omaha as a Fellow at the Union for Contemporary Art in 2018. Since then the Detroit-based artist who graduated cum laude from the University of Iowa has made his home and his mark here in at least five art exhibits and events.
This whirlwind tour of Metro venues of all sorts includes such exhibits as The 2018 Union Fellows Exhibition last winter, Worlds Apart at Fontenelle Forest Nature Center in the summer, OOOze at the Generator Space on Vinton Street with Adam Roberts and Angie Seykora and most recently, Unite Us One, currently on display at Petshop Gallery until October 25.
As affirmation of his success and acceptance in Metro Arts, Barber has been recently nominated in no less than five visual arts categories of the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards including Outstanding Visual Artist, Emerging Visual Artist, 2-D Artist, Group Show and Public Art.
And in his spare time he has included stopovers in such pop-ups and events as Split Gallery’s group show, Abstract Folk, and assisted artist Reggie Leflore with the latter’s OEAA nominated Public Art, “The Ancestor, The Identity, and The Seed” at N. 24th and Ohio Streets.
In full disclosure, this writer is part of the OEAA nominating committee. As such, it can be said that while Worlds Apart drew considerable attention for bringing freshness and a spark to significant themes and familiar genres, the less ambitious yet effective Unite Us One is a virtual microcosm of Barber’s vision and art.
The Petshop exhibit includes nine works (there may be some adjustment here) of what the artist refers to as his “paintings”, but the show is really a mix of collage and montage imagery in his customary aesthetic. As for vision, Barber told Reader in an email exchange regarding Unite Us One that though he advocates for social change, particularly with regard to Black America, his work is guided by something more than the status quo both in art…and political options.
“I forget where I read it, but it reads that ‘Politics is an appearance of control that replaces the voiceful opposition with a ballot,’” he said. “I’m not against voting, but there must be more attention given to who/what gets on the ballot. My art is my way of going beyond the ballot (political options) to influence culture.”
Unlike more overt social practice artists, Barber’s influence is more subtle and indirect. Issues such as poverty, racial inequality and justice may resonate within his work, but so do such themes as personal identity, relationships and communication. His art can be confrontational, yet when you walk away from it, you don’t feel lectured to. The narrative may seem obscure, but the images linger longer, indicating that Barber doesn’t need to have the last word.
“Questions beget much more than answers ever can,” Barber said. “I try not to tell the viewer what to think but how to go about reading the work. Each painting by design comes with an open narrative and it’s left to the viewer to create the story.”
He further describes his Petshop show “as an attempt to deliver personal perspectives through such an open channel that viewers might be able to perceive them as their own.” Hence the exhibit title, Unite Us One. This overall tone is easy to appreciate is such Humanistic pieces as “I “See Myself in You” and “People in Nature”, but more demanding in such provocative mixed media pieces as “Dead or in Jail” or “Pencil Sharpener” or even “Candy Wrapper”.
Without first hand experience, how does the viewer identify with the reality of “Dead or in Jail”, the appropriated text messages of ‘What’s A Brotha Gotta Do?’ or ‘Stop Lynching!’ in “Pencil Sharpener” or ‘Dykes Against Racism Everywhere’ in “Candy Wrapper”? How do these headlines and other signage “unite us one?”
Though Barber isn’t looking for an argument or shock value, he certainly has our attention as if to say, unless one lives in a bubble, we all live in the same spaces. Crime, poverty, prejudice, neglect, all the vices as well as the virtues that affect and unite us all, first or second hand, whether we choose to accept or deny it.
This is what ultimately makes Barber a Humanist, and though this vision of the world that unifies all his art may seem simple, he isn’t naïve enough to believe that it is easy. Consequently, neither is his art. Simple that is. Stylistically, Barber’s art is deliberately, deceptively naïve, a tradition as old as the first cave paintings. Naïve or folk art from a trained artist, such as he, is characterized by unfiltered honesty with a visual style that is a means to an end.
Social and political change or at least enlightenment is the end. Visually, in keeping with the simple, yet symbolic paintings of the Paleolithic Age, Barber’s contemporary set pieces and narratives are created with imagery that references the structural compositions of early 20th Century artist Fernand Leger, the paper cut cartoons of Terry Gilliam and even the pop computer animation of TV’s South Park.
Regardless of subject or theme, Barber’s art is assembled with blocky, geometric, comic strip characters with very round heads regardless of race, color or gender, layered or juxtaposed in an environment of nature and an urban milieu with overtones of cultural and social commentary. Factor in the detritus of a throw away society, a liberal use of the iconic gender pictogram, text messages–some explicit, some scribbled–and created on paper, sheet rock or cardboard. You get the picture that though the artist has a lot on his mind, he hasn’t traded in his gift or muse for the sake of the message.
“My dream goal is to be a visual liaison between fine art and folk art,” Barber said. “Folk artists used material that was available to them. I work in assemblage as homage to their process. Process is everything. How the smashed soda can in North Omaha or the cigar box lining from Hanoi, Vietnam came to me, is story in itself.”
His assemblages serve the same end, whether collages or montages. Barber’s “paintings” mentioned above in Petshop’s upper gallery are layered mixed media compositions, and thus, collages; while the paintings “Red Sea” and “Katrina” in the lower gallery are montages, single compositions of juxtaposed images. In either case, each medium is greater than the sum of its various parts. Each work creates a new composite whole.
And therein “lies the rub.” None of Barber’s works are finished, at least not conceptually. He has assembled his pieces by design, not to indoctrinate, but to compel, as if to say, “there is no one truth, it’s all true.” The mediums of collage and montage serve this intent as long as one is capable of seeing the forest through the trees. With an open mind. Willing to engage and complete a picture, if not “the” picture.
Barber has done his part, as it were. His aesthetic, style and medium all serve his mission to connect with viewers on their own terms as well as his own. Unite Us One invites interpretation without copping out with that dreaded cliché too often heard by both artists and viewers: “It can mean whatever you want it to!”
No, it can’t. Believing such or saying so risks opening the door to revelations more about one’s taste and even bias rather than conversations about the art itself. A work of art may be open to interpretation then, not merely because one has an opinion but because art isn’t prosaic. Its content is imaginative and plastic as well as thoughtful and emotional. All it asks is for a little face time and that the conversation never veers away from the work itself.
We can disagree about taste and how Barber’s art makes us feel. We can even disagree as to what a given piece has to “say”, but we must at least agree that we saw the same work. Not all of his work makes such demands or draws such a fine line. Nor is all of it equally successful in its attempt to engage or connect. But at least even his lesser works with a social conscience are creative and visually interesting.
For instance, the pairing of Barber’s two montages in the lower gallery “Red Sea” and “Katrina” is an odd but intriguing juxtaposition of two monumental events, one Biblical and mythical, the other both historical and contemporary. Each is significant to a specific group of people, but what are we to make of them individually and together?
Of the two, the hurricane-inspired “Katrina” is the more visually arresting with its birds-eye view of New Orleans’ maze of canals, streets flooded or not, urban dwellings occupied or not, all arranged in an organic and pleasing palette of browns, blues, yellows and reds. Until you realize that this abstract rendering is a rising tide of water, mud, death and destruction.
The “Red Sea” has a similar aesthetic and some of the same drama, if somewhat diminished by comparison with its smaller size. Maybe the pairing of these two water-theme montages was just an “unhappy accident” determined by available space. Or maybe Barber is struck by the contrast of supernatural intervention juxtaposed with political and social neglect, the former a source of religious and cultural inspiration and the latter a reminder of institutional racism. Where was or is the miracle that put the Big Easy and its predominantly Black population on its road to recovery.
Less speculative but even more visually creative is a collage whose themes and tone couldn’t be more contemporary. “Dead or in Jail” seems to tell all, but the overlapping imagery of this provocative piece speaks volumes about issues the artist feels strongly about.
“Dead or in Jail” is a stark portrayal of the future young men and women face who fall prey to gangs, drugs and a biased judicial system when raised in an environment of poverty, neglect and unequal educational and job opportunities. Assembled with Mylar balloons, plastic garbage bags, cotton balls and cosmetic pads, felt, flattened beer cans, paper plates and paint and more, Barber offers a veritable lineup of figures/faces of all colors, some attached to their grave stones, others in mourning in what may seem like a familiar, yet macabre setting in reality or on social media. Even more forbidding commentary is the work’s forecast as a barely visible “college” floats above a cloudy day and beyond the reach of those above and below the ground.
More obscure and visually challenging are his two collages, “Pencil Sharpener” and “Candy Wrapper”. The aforementioned text messages of each offer clues to the issues involved while the titles do not. And while the images of two “brothas” in the former and “Dykes” and “Spongebob Squarepants” in the latter dominate along with the text in both, their connections will remain puzzling unless ones looks closer as to how Barber assembled both.
Each piece is composed of two juxtaposed contrasting composites. In “Pencil Sharpener”, its myriad of mixed messages via social media (see the text “Instagram” at the top as a clue) serves as commentary on how one so easily navigates between the sublime and the ridiculous online. The result: “all emphasis is no emphasis.”
“Candy Wrapper” is a bit more subtle. Not that its own text of “what’s a brotha gotta do?” (presumably to get ahead) and “stop lynching” don’t speak volumes on their own, but there is a subtext that interests Barber and may elude the viewer. Ironically, it’s included in the title in the show’s list of works as: “IG print: @HankWillisThomas and @Complex” which is also barely visible in the piece itself.
Complex is a NY-based media platform for street and pop culture, and Hank Willis Thomas is a US conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to identity, history, and popular culture. Since that pretty well defines Barber as well, one may rightly assume that this work is partly an homage to Thomas, and the titular candy wrapper seen affixed in the bottom left-hand corner a comment on the impact of a market-driven platform on Black economy and culture.
Barber isn’t always racially centered with this work. After all, anyone who has met or knows him, knows him to be a people-person. In fact, one collage serves as a centerpiece for Unite Us One, and that is “I See Myself in You”, again with a subtext of “Nature” at his website and even “People in Nature” on the show list.
Here we see again a group of many colors seeking and sharing a moment in Mother Nature away from the urban everyday while leaving something of themselves behind, a smashed Pepsi can for example. More than littering, Barber’s composite appears to be more about what unites us than divides us and that we all play a role in the stewardship of Human Nature.
Barber has chosen his role, and he seems to delight in it. Social activist, community builder, Humanist, but first and foremost, an artist.
Unite Us One continues until October 25 at Petshop Gallery, 2725 N 62nd St. in Benson. For details and gallery hours, go to email@example.com.