GQ: Alvaro Barrington’s Paintings Take a Lifetime

May 4, 2022

Osman Can Yerebakan

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Alvaro Barrington worked at a streetwear store called OMG in New York’s Soho in the early 2000s. When Prada opened its much-hyped Epicenter boutique right across the street, he immediately bought a pair of its America’s Cup sneakers. Wearing the kicks to church that Sunday—rather than the typical Clarks dress shoes—all eyes were on Barrington. “I was one of the few kids who was commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan for school, so I would always observe the fashion and culture happening around the city,” the artist says. 

All these years on and we’re sitting around the corner from his old boutique job in a corner booth at Balthazar. Fittingly, Barrington is wearing a Prada leather bag today. But much has changed for him over the last two decades: the 39-year-old has moved to London (it “tried me hard at first” and he was ready to leave, “but now I cannot run away from it—I will be here for a while”) and seen himself reach extraordinary new heights, storming the global art scene with his absorbing paintings. 

“Unlike the circles I hung out with here, my friends in London are almost all from the art crowd,” he says now. This was the direct outcome of his decision to move to the city in 2015 to get a graduate degree at the Slade School of Fine Art. He and his classmates would spend all their days obsessively discussing paintings, to the point where, “if I were around people who didn’t participate, I would just walk out of the conversation and not feel guilty about it.” 

This single-mindedness paid off. Fresh from the Slade, Barrington’s first solo exhibition was not at a small gallery off the beaten path, but at the Museum of Modern Art’s Queens outpost MoMA PS1, in 2017. The installation, which included colour-bursting phallic paintings, postcards and Post-It notes, was a re-staging of his London studio inside the New York institution. According to art historian and curator Norman Rosenthal, who brought the MoMA PS1 show to Thaddaeus Ropac gallery’s London space, “every generation creates its own artistic icons, and Alvaro might be the next one.” 

When the two met at an opening in Barrington’s very first week in London, Rosenthal was impressed by the talkative young painter, but thought the work still needed some cooking. Two years later, Rosenthal “was blown away by the energy in his New York show.” 

Barrington was born in Venezuela to a Haitian DJ father and Grenadian seamstress mother. Brooklyn was home for his formative years, where he was collectively raised by his grandmother and aunts after his mother’s passing. This sense of community is echoed in his practice, which he describes as painting while flirting with sculpture, collage, poetry, hip-hop, and even float design. This Renaissance man-style openness to adjacent genres is not unheard of, but Barrington’s approach to art leads to a welcoming feast for all. 

So in demand is he that Barrington is represented by a staggering eight galleries worldwide. In London, blue chips Thaddaeus Ropac and Sadie Coles HQ, as well as the edgier Emalin and Corvi-Mora. In Brazil, Mendes Wood DM deals in his paintings. In North America, it’s New Yorkers Karma and Nicola Vassell Gallery, then Blum & Poe in Los Angeles. “Constantly being in dialogues with different opinions excites me—if I worked with one dealer, I would find myself in a single conversation,” he says, giving a hearty bro-shake to a fellow artist who shyly approaches our table. “Why be monogamous when I can learn different things from each relationship?” 

The galleries seem content with the arrangement, too. After a total of eight solo exhibitions in London, Paris and New York in 2021, Barrington recently opened his newest show, La Vie En Rose, at Ropac’s Salzburg space. The show’s title references Tupac Shakur’s poem The Rose that Grew From Concrete and it delved into the ways we encounter beauty in the midst of the urban struggle. It drew heavily from Barrington’s Black-Caribbean experience in London. A stand-out piece, Lady Sing the Blues @ Proud Mary Left to Right (2022), showed coloured yarn, hair curlers, drums and a broom woven into stretched hessian sackcloth – a material he typically chooses over canvas as a signifier of undervalued labour and marginalised commerce. 

If you’re in London, you might spot Barrington avidly biking across the city or taking the half-hour walk between his Shoreditch apartment and Hackney studio. There, after slipping into a pair of Bottega Veneta Puddle “work boots,” he starts his back-and-forth ritual between painting and sewing, working on whichever one echoes his mood. Figuring out the right harmony took him years, but art eventually became his path for salvation, “just like rappers rapping their pain.” 

Weaving is when the painter finds himself ranting about anything from student debt injustice to the pandemic’s toll on vulnerable communities. It connects him with his aunts who taught him how to sew, as well as “my ancestors who picked cotton, and my mom who tuned into Oprah every day at 4pm.” Painting calms him down. 

How long does a painting usually take? Unlike his other responses, the reaction comes without a long, thoughtful pause: “Each painting takes 39 years to make because I couldn’t get to any work without all this experience.” 

Before discovering art, heavy panic attacks would floor Barrington. “I had so much to express that holding them down was haunting.” For him, art today is as much about the community as the meditation: “I don’t want to be in a space where I am not addressing how working-class people or college students are treated.” 

While painting is a talent already granted to the rare few, the ability to translate the work into a social force is even rarer. Barrington is opening a multipurpose art space in Whitechapel this summer, which will coincide with his return to the Notting Hill Carnival with another massive float painting. “I feel more and more integrated into a culture that has been so generous to me here,” he says of London’s Caribbean community. Being such an interdisciplinary artist, he could hardly find a more all-encompassing backdrop: “It’s painting, performance, music, storytelling, fabrics—I get so much from Carnival.” 

Whether it’s Western art history, 2000s rap, or the painful landscape of social injustice, Barrington’s swift weaving of ample references while disregarding any hierarchy is perhaps the primary reason for the growing fandom around him. For ICA Miami’s artistic director Alex Gartenfeld (who tapped the sculptural mixed-media painting They Have They Cant [2021] for his museum), Barrington is the newest voice in a succession of artists “whose work is very global while examining diaspora conditions in unexpected mediums,” and sees his work as “art history brought to the present.” 

Fame has only kept piling up along the way, but for Barrington, recognition is “a tool, not the main thing. Like a wrench or a screwdriver, I have to use it in the right place.” Besides its responsibilities, the wide opening of the art world’s strictly guarded doors leads to fun, as well. Two years ago, he co-organised the humorously titled Artists I Steal From at Ropac in London, along with the gallery’s senior global director and former director of Serpentine Galleries, Julia Peyton-Jones. 

The show was a museum-level who’s who of Barrington’s icons: Joseph Beuys and Jackson Pollock across from Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, and all next to a Barrington painting. At the beginning of their collaboration, Peyton-Jones gave the artist what she calls “the rule of the game,” and asked him to send her a note once a day about his fascination for one artist from the show. 

“Alvaro has an immense curiosity and appetite about other artists,” she says. “All artists steal, as we know well, but what makes him unique is his ability to learn something specific from each.” The catalogue, which is a collection of those daily notes, is now used as a reference in a curating course at Goldsmiths University. In his entry about Cy Twombly, Barrington notes: “If his canvas or paper were a movie, he would have known exactly when silence should lead to a loud bang.” 

Barrington loves making notes. He keeps a journal, which he constantly revisits and adjusts. It’s a planner of his next 30 years. “I have all the shows and venues I want to show written down,” he explains. Prospective themes include a show about his coming into being through his mother’s immigrant experience. Another idea is to explore porn “as a territory to experience my demons, because watching it takes me to places I would not go in daily life.” The goal for the self-proclaimed “sexually conservative” artist is to collaborate with his sex-worker and porn-actor friends to take a look at the undervalued nature of sexually graphic work. 

While he works towards this three-decade script, life remains a never-ending painting that he sews, colours, tightens and alters with a surgeon’s precision and a DJ’s mixing. Whatever he sells, Barrington has no issues with letting his paintings leave his studio, because the departure doesn’t mean that the work is out of sight, out of mind. So if you’re interested in buying one of his pieces, be prepared for an impromptu drop-in from the artist. “I actually ask my dealers to let the collectors know that I might come over and add new elements.”

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