Bed bath beyond
Claire Barrow heralds the London vanguard as one of this city’s most enthralling design talents, but it’s her dual skill as an artist that often sets her apart. Her artworks and illustrations are best known in the context of her collections – screen-printed onto leather jackets and silk dresses as part of an ongoing dialogue at the intersection of subculture and iconography. Claire’s narrative is witty and whimsical, her warped characters and strange scenes well loved and known.
In February, Barrow used her FW16 fashion week presentation as a platform to further shake up the line between artist and fashion designer, showing her clothes in the context of a mock museum (works even had labelled plaques). It was a prelude of sorts to this week’s big happening, as Claire presents her debut solo exhibition, at M. Goldstein Gallery in East London.
The Bed, The Bath & The Beyond incorporates paintings, drawings and works in neon light, all traversing themes of death, baptism and rebirth via her own take on a devil-like figure. Myth, youth and eroticism combine in a visual ritual that’s one hundred percent Claire (just look to her brilliant Toilet Roll motifs for proof of that).
Black banners contrasted with vivid white light reflect typical associations between neon and the underground, from strip club signs to pseudo religious symbolism. All underlined by notions of modern anxiety and cleanliness versus godliness – a theme that’s transfixed creatives over the years, from Aldous Huxley through Barrow today.
“The word ‘naive’ is used a lot in relation to Claire’s work, but I think that’s because she’s so young, I think her work is very advanced,”says contemporary art dealer Nathaniel Lee-Jones. “She’s committed to painting. Having the opportunity to work with her, I can see that. Whether she is talking about art or fashion, Claire is good at communicating her excitement. I enjoy that exchange and it’s infectious, making me excited, too.”
Barrow, who worked with photographer and long-time friend Eloise Parry for our special cover shoot for HEROINE 4, goes head to head here with Nathaniel Lee-Jones to talk inspiration, perspective, and what – if anything – comes after we’re done with life.
Nathaniel Lee-Jones: The way you mix myth and technology, eroticism and youth culture, is exciting and provocative to me as a viewer. Am I right to see almost a paganism in your depiction of demonic forces, sex and nature and maybe repressed elements of contemporary culture?
Claire Barrow: Yes definitely it’s a lot about my own frustrations with myself and that I can’t get off my phone and computer, recreationally or for my work. What happens when this goes away after we die, or if it all breaks and shuts down, and if there is a life after death we will have to live without these things or not? We can know the brief history and reasoning or see a visual for anything with just the click of a button. We are living in the Matrix.
For this show I have had a starting point of social anxieties in modern British life which then developed into feeling clean or free of guilt, or baptised. From these initial thoughts I was then looking at imagery from the Renaissance, and Christianity’s depiction of hell but then once I had began painting/drawing it was very much coming from my own head and I began to reference my feelings and instincts rather than taking any other kind of inspiration in.
What kind of artist do you want to be?
I am proud of being a socialist, northern, young woman so I’m not going to turn into Tracy Emin or something (her work is on display in Downing Street commissioned by David Cameron nowadays). What’s even the point of making art that doesn’t have some kind of political voice or message, even if that be beauty or optimism or pessimism at least it’s making people ‘feel’ rather than just being a exercise in your own narcissism – which you convince people is great art because it must be if you have the ‘old industry’ behind you.
Claire Barrow, ‘Midday Haunting’, acrylic and mixed media, 2016. Courtesy the artist
“What’s even the point of making art that doesn’t have some kind of political voice or message? Even if that be beauty or optimism or pessimism at least it’s making people ‘feel’ rather than just being a exercise in your own narcissism” – Claire Barrow
Claire Barrow, ‘Unnamed’, toilet roll, 2015. Courtesy the artist
Your charisma and your gender speaks to women, especially young women. Your work is feminine but not vulnerable. How important is your gender in the creation of your art?
I don’t know, I love being a woman so much but I don’t feel like I need to be female whilst working I actually try to channel my masculine energy it makes me feel a little braver. Having felt small and insecure when having to explain my work being a woman in this industry, even as a fashion designer, I think the trick to creating art when you are alone with your own thoughts is bravado, and audacity in your conviction and ideas, and thinking then also about the bigger picture of what it is all about and why it needs to be out in the world.
Do you think there are any taboos left in art?
No! One of my favourite artists is George W. Bush with his political leader portraits and self portraits, it’s so dark. James Franco too, although that’s a completely separate thing really isn’t it? But they both did use Google Images a lot to copy from. There’s something so compelling about famous people’s ‘bad’ art.
Your work is at times awkward, in a good way, it is also brave. Why did you decide to introduce elements of performance and exposing yourself as the art object as the show has developed?
I am a young woman with these anxieties about being taken seriously, I’m mocking myself before anyone else has the chance to. Having myself ‘modelling’ the artworks is a way for me to do this and also relates back to my fashion process of creating a lookbook each season.
‘The Bed, The Bath & The Beyond’ runs from 17th–24th April at M. Goldstein Gallery, 67 Hackney Rd, London