Barnaby Furnas - Interview
Beautiful Decay Magazine
June 1, 2006
Barnaby Furnas’ paintings seethe with a frenetic energy, creating dynamic and visually potent exhibitions. Whether describing battles, orgies, or rock and roll concerts, his distinctive painting easily distinguishes him from his contemporaries. In his interview with Beautiful/Decay, Furnas discusses what informs his art, like graffiti, video games, and bloody visions of the apocalypse.
Do you remember what brought you to start painting the battle scenes?
I was watching a lot of action-adventure movies, and that was right when Saving Private Ryan came out and and The Matrix. I was also playing a lot of video games like DOOM. I just wanted to try to make a picture that was like that experience, unfortunately. It was like what can I make a horror blockbuster painting look like? I don’t know if painting can do that, but you can try.
DOOM is a landmark video game in a way. I remember playing it when I was younger and the experience of being in that expansive landscape was quite remarkable.
BF: Yeah. The idea is if I can make painting that can make you feel like you’re in it. I don’t know if painting can do that, but that was the goal. So, this is where the battle paintings from. I wanted to see if I could make twenty minutes of a Saving Private Ryan experience in front of a still image. That was the interest for the intellectual start for that project. When I was kid I used to make drawings for myself; I’d draw all these army men with guns and once they were all set up, I’d play with the picture, and every gun would shoot and hit someone else.
I know what you’re saying.
And that’s the way I wanted to feel when making art. I want it to feel like I’m there. It was the old relationship to art and then dealing with this explosion of action, this incredible effective rollercoaster-type action that sort of came together. That is still how I pick my subjects to this day. I go find things to make pictures that are really captivating.
Then the battle scenes didn’t come out of a specific interest in American military history?
No. Not at first, at all. I knew I wanted to do war pictures, and history paintings was an idea too. Later, the work got much more historical, and now it is quite pointedly historical. At the beginning it was more like a war where they had different colored outfits on, it made it easier to tell who was what. I couldn’t do the Vietnam War because that’s not my war. I couldn’t do the Korean War – it’s not my war either – or World War II. It just seemed like the right place to start was the Civil War. I grew up in Philadelphia. We’d go to these parks where they preserve battlefields and do reenactments. As a kid, I would always be projecting into these spaces, I’d always had rich fantasy life that revolved around shooting and gunplay and who got better cover and all that stuff. We’d come to a stone wall that was built for the purpose of protection, and we’d look down the hill and think, “Wow, those guys would be screwed.” I got into my fantasy life.
Other than the Civil War, is there any particular war or particular military figure that you take a lot of interest in?
Right now, I’m doing paintings of John Brown. He was a radical abolitionist and a devout Calvinist who believed that God asked him to end slavery. He started to wage a terror campaign throughout the South. He was sneaking into plantations, slitting the throats of plantation owners, arming slaves, and trying to go take the next plantation. He had incredible support in the Northeast, he was really impressed with Emerson and Thoreau, and they saw him as a man of action. Of course, the South saw him as this crazy terrorist guy. He was finally caught in Harper’s Ferry by General Lee, and then there was this profound speech he gave and then they hung him. He really galvanized the abolitionist movement and started the end of slavery even though he was quite vicious.
How is this working its way into these new pieces you are doing?
Yeah, he’s going to be in my next show. He relates to me because as I worked on the Civil War thing I started dealing with slavery and he’s kind of seen as this American Jesus-like figure.
When I was looking at the show at Anthony Meier, there is one painting that almost looks like a portrait, there’s a very tall and slender figure who has a full face, was that a big step for you then?
That’s the painting of the guy having a drink at a bar.
I had done paintings like that before. Over the last year or two, I’ve been focusing on dealing with real people.
Also, at the same time, you are doing these larger, massive blood paintings. That seems like a natural extension for your earlier work. How did you go from doing the battle scenes to these large Kubrick-esque washes of blood?
Yeah, that scene from The Shining where the elevator door opens. I was commissioned to make a painting for this building on Park Avenue and I decided to do this big apocalypse painting because it seemed to be on everyone’s mind at the moment. I have suns in almost all of my paintings, and in this one, instead of having a sun up there, there’s an anus. It’s God’s anus and he’s shitting all the sinners into this field where big monsters are rendering them into blood and filling up hell. So, I made that painting and then the other side of the wall is what happened after and it’s just this big blood pour. Now I’m actually working on a version of the Red Sea parting, so I’m taking it back to historical events.
When you were younger you did your share of graffiti. Is there a connection between your larger pour works, the spraying and dripping that you use, and your history with graffiti?
Well, yes, I’m using a lot of the same tools. I’m spraying the skies now, not with spray paint, but with portable paint sprayers, and I’m using magic markers and hypodermic needles. But these paintings are bigger than anything I would’ve worked on back then. My whole graffiti time is very close to me right now. The whole culture around graffiti, I’m quite far away from that now, but I’m still into the idea of getting up; it’s a great idea, like branding yourself.
There are a lot of paintings that aren’t battled based at all, like Kissers (2001). Is that work more personal for you?
Well, like The Kissers, most of those came out of getting married. In another way the battle scenes and kissing scenes are sort of the same. They’re intense experiences, a sort of orgasmic moment. In a way I saw them as being about the same thing, this really intense experience that makes boundaries unnecessary. Because it’s so intense I don’t really have to worry about how the figures are painted, they don’t have to be right.
It seems that the battle scenes are about that “moment of truth…”
It’s like the moment of self-dissolution where ego goes away.
And that’s very similar to when you are kissing.
That’s right, you are fusing boundaries. In the end, all the paintings are about things I worry about. I think that everyone is worried about bad things happening and I am certainly worried about bad things happening, so making these pictures is a way of getting over that. Like getting used to the idea of the apocalypse.
Now that we’ve been at war for years, has there been a significant change in the level of interest in your battle scenes? Do people approach them differently than they would’ve in the past?
Particularly people from other countries. I just had this German curator in here who thought these paintings could only be made in a few places. It wouldn’t make sense for some German painter to be making big bloody pictures.
In a lot of ways that makes your work seem All-American.
Yes, I am very conscious of it being American work.
How do you feel about that?
I think it’s a goal. If there’s a problem in the international art world it seems that entire countries can be interchangeable. The last Whitney Biennial essentially did not even bother with it being American anymore. If there’s ever a time where Americans need to make art about America is would be now.
What exhibitions do you have slated for the future?
I have an exhibition at the Marianne Boesky Gallery that will open in September. They’re building a new gallery from the ground up; I have the first slot in that and that’s what I am working on right now. The Red Sea paintings, that’s probably the core, and I’m working on these portraits of the resurrection of Jesus – he’s got butteflies all over him. I’m also doing these pictures on animal skins, there are a couple of those in the Anthony Meier show. And then I’m doing these revenge pictures which are like a voodoo doll, but it’s a picture of someone and I’m sort of hurting these people. That’s what I’ve got in store for September.
In the revenge paintings, these are people that you know personally?
Well, yeah. Three of them are collectors who have decided to put things up for auction.
[Laughing] I’m making these pictures of them and then I’m hurting the paper. So, folding it, spitting on it, and cutting it, and poking it with needles. It’s really funny. They’ll be interesting to see.
That’s got to be liberating in a way. It sounds like that with the animal skins, you are moving away from strictly canvas?
Well, not necessarily. With the skins it just makes everything that much realer; skin is the thing that separates blood from air, it becomes a more shamanistic object. It’s very interesting to me because it turns up the reality of the whole experience. They have holes from old scars, it’s where they had to cut around it and you can see the stretcher bar. It’s definitely a new thing.