The work of Andrew Barns-Graham continues to provide us with an intoxicating contradiction. Are we meant to love, loathe or pity his subjects? Compositionally their immediacy confronts and confounds us. They dominate the foreground and their haughtiness combined with an undertone of vulnerability fuels our curiosity and keeps us looking and wanting to know more.
Interpretation of these works is problematic. Is Barns-Graham glorifying what he perceives as the ideal? A very modern take on the mysteries of feminine beauty which have been conveyed in portraiture for hundreds of years. The centralised placement of his subject is certainly reminiscent of a fifteenth century Madonna – without the Renaissance preoccupation with virtue being the only conduit for beauty. These women are charged with a frosty sexuality which is undeniably modern.
Alternatively one could view his portraits as a scathing condemnation of the contemporary desire to airbrush and eradicate imperfection. The blank gazes and aloof expressions can be seen as a comment on the crippling pressure faced by the modern woman to strive for an ideal beauty, generated by an increasingly pervasive mass media. The hint of vulnerability is disquieting and encourages us to pause and examine the impact of this modern preoccupation with perfection.
An element of satire can be perceived within the works. We are left questioning whether Barns-Graham is making a bleakly humorous comment on popular culture and the cult of perfection. The very contemporary notion that media generated images have become so powerful that surface appearances are valued above all other attributes of the individual.
Barns-Graham's style is distinctive and completely appropriate when considering his subject matter. Hard-edged contours and perfectly blended colour rid his women of any realistic imperfection. Detail has been reduced to draw our attention to those facial features which are suggestive of idealised beauty – the sultry pout, sculpted cheekbone, or suggestive eyebrow. The hyper-real depiction combined with a minimalist yet theatrical use of props decontextualises the works. These women transcend time which only heightens their inaccessibility.
References are frequently made to the historical treatment of the female ideal in portraiture. Barns-Graham synthesises this historicism with a desire to explore possibilities created by images sourced from a variety of media. Hence we are left with the dichotomous impression of something familiar yet far removed from our own reality.
On close inspection what we can be sure of is that Barns-Graham’s elevation of a media construct to a piece of fine art requires more than passing comment and a fleeting glance. His work requires us to look at ourselves and the world we live in to understand a myriad of possible messages.
Essay by Olivia Willock
Education: Bachelor of Fine Arts, Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland
Awards/Distinctions:The Wallace Art Awards - Finalist (2008, 2001); Kings College Artist in Residence (2003)
Collections: The James Wallace Arts Trust, Auckland
Publications/Articles:‘Shows on ice are poles apart’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Jun 2011; ‘Master manipulator’, She, May 2010; ‘City in the sea both fantastical and true’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Jul 2009; ‘Turned Inwards: The Art of Andrew Barns-Graham’ by Rob Garrett, Art New Zealand, Spring 2008, No. 128, pp 54-56; ‘Strength and meaning out loud’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, June 2008; ‘The Generation Game’ by Kristine Walsh, The Gisborne Herald, Oct 2007; Robinson, Denis (ed.), New Zealand’s Favourite Artists, Auckland: Saint Publ., 2006, pp 16-17
Artworks featured in: New Zealand House and Garden, Mar 2011, Sept 2010; Home New Zealand, Feb/Mar 2010; Viva, The New Zealand Herald, Jul 2009