Published May 23rd, 2022 by Russ White
Ahead of their upcoming Discussion Series, each of the six 2019 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts talks to us individually about their practice
This is the fifth in a series of articles profiling the six distinguished artists chosen as 2019 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Culminating the two-year fellowship (delayed last year by the pandemic) was a McKnight Discussion Series:
The first was on May 24th at 6:30pm at MCAD, featuring Janet Dees, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, in conversation with Leslie Barlow, Mary Griep, and Melvin R. Smith.
The second was unfortunately canceled due to Covid-related scheduling issues. It would have featured Henriette Huldisch, Chief Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Walker Art Center, in conversation with Joe Sinness, Alexa Horochowski, and Tetsuya Yamada.
Photo by Rik Sferra
There’s not a lot of smiling in art museums. Take a stroll through the Minneapolis Institute of Art, for instance, and you will find happy faces in very short supply. Sure, you can almost always find people at the café laughing and talking, or gaggles of schoolkids running gleefully from room to room on field trips. It’s not at all an unhappy place; I love that museum.
But the people on the walls – in the paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures? On the whole, not a chipper bunch. On a recent visit I found only a handful of exceptions: a couple of smiling buddhas, one placidly cordial baby Jesus, and a few quizzical smirks in the Modern & Contemporary galleries. Aside from that, this massive collection of some of the world’s best art has very little to say – at least representationally – about joy.
The first full-fledged, teeth-flashing smiles I found were well into my visit, up on the third floor, in a beautifully stylized painting of a Black mother proudly posing with her young sons, by the artist Joy Labinjo. The source image looks like a candid family snapshot, the three boys up front cheesin’ for the camera – an utterly normal moment of fun. But in the context of the exhibition it's in, Rituals of Resilience, the painting – and these sudden smiles inside the gallery – take on the weight of something larger and more powerful. You get the sense that, as the poet Toi Derricotte put it in the title to one of her poems, “Joy is an act of resistance.”
Around the corner from Labinjo’s piece is another domestic scene, a mixed media portrait by Leslie Barlow of her grandmother, Ellen Barlow, sitting at home on the couch. There is not quite a smile on her grandmother’s face, but it’s close. She wears a loving, knowing, contented look, not so much gazing out at the viewer as studying the artist – her granddaughter – with patience and pride. Behind her on the wall, a flash of yellow brushstrokes haloes her head. At her slippered feet the canvas becomes a quilted carpet of fabric blocks and old family photos – a scrapbook of domestic life as faded as the box of tissues on the side table, which Barlow has left barely there in the breezy pink strokes of her underpainting. It reminds me of visiting my own grandmothers at their homes: the years of accumulated family history in the furniture and the photos and the familiarity – in the stuff and the smells of the place.
Top: Ellen Barlow, Oil, pastel, acrylic, photo transfer, and fabric on canvas, 66” x 48”, 2019. Bottom: When I was your age, we…, Acrylic and quilted fabric on canvas, 72” x 76”, 2019.
The story of a family is the story of time passing. Barlow’s portraits often contain pieces of what has passed, some of it ugly and some of it sweet, much of it written on the faces of her subjects. But the way she paints grabs ahold of the present moment, teasing out deep rivers of feeling from something as simple as a woman relaxing on her sofa at home.
“My paintings aren’t about just capturing a likeness,” Barlow explains, “although that’s important to me. They’re also about sharing something about that person's energy or personal story.”
Flashes of orange, teal, and magenta form the folds in Ellen’s sweatshirt; her hands fade in and out of focus like memories. Some subtle drips run through her figure and onto the floor below, but her face is fully realized in wonderfully observed sections of color. She glows with light purples, blues, golden pale yellows, rich red browns, and carefully placed black shadows. A painting like this makes you realize just how many colors you can find in a face. In a way, that is what Barlow’s work is all about: exploring life between colors and cultures as part of a multi-racial family in a society still structured around white supremacy.
“My work talks about those issues on an intimate level,” she says. “Instead of talking about racism with a capital R, I’m talking about intergenerational trauma – the subtle ways these systems and constructs affect us in our families, in our friendships, in our romantic relationships, and how these things perpetuate over time.”
Her paintings are typically one step removed from autobiographical – you won’t find many self-portraits in her recent catalog, but you will find her grandmothers, her parents, her siblings, her colleagues, and her friends. “I’ve always felt weird about self-portraits, to be honest,” she explains. “I feel like I’m already really present in the work. I paint a lot of family members, so it’s very much my story.” Indeed, you can see the artist quite plainly reflected in her subjects’ eyes, in the confidence and comfort with which they pose, knowing they are not just being studied but being seen. What you’re seeing on their faces, more than anything, is trust.
Top: Nicole and Seth and their daughter (and daughter to be), in the kitchen, Oil and acrylic on panel, 60” x 48”, 2020. Bottom: Lacey and their poodle, in the backyard, Oil, acrylic, yarn, and canvas on panel, 60” x 48”, 2020.
That trust was on prominent display in Barlow’s MAEP exhibition last year, Within, Between, and Beyond, filling up Mia with a lot more smiles than normal. The show featured 16 large-scale portraits of individuals and families from different ethnic backgrounds, with different lived experiences, accompanied by video interviews with the subjects telling their own stories. The paintings themselves are large and luscious – all painted on four by five foot wooden panels – each one caught in the balance between finished portrait and sketchy underpainting. Barlow’s colors are almost radioactively vibrant in some spots: a hand glowing bright red, a brick wall turned neon orange, a landscape rendered in swirling magentas. As with Ellen, here her subjects’ faces ground the works, even as arms, legs, and whole rooms fade into atmosphere. You can tell she’s having fun making these.
“For me, when I’m pushing around that goo — the pigment and the dirt, there’s something very sensual about it,” she says. “It’s a very embodied experience. I don’t feel separate from the paint, I kind of get lost in it.” If you follow her on Instagram, you’ve likely seen pictures of her painting palette, expertly dappled with dozens of daubs of oil paint in every shade imaginable. That process alone can take up to two hours, mixing and preparing her materials at the start of a painting session. “It’s like when people pour their coffee in the morning to get ready for their day. It’s how I get in the mindspace to paint.”
Textile elements pop up on some of these paintings, as well: red scraps quilted into the background of one; embroidered sunflowers in the foreground of another. It’s a material nod to the history of American craft and art, calling to mind the quilts of Gee’s Bend and the collages of Romare Bearden, while also connecting Barlow to contemporary artists working in fiber-based media, such as Bisa Butler, whose work hangs nearby in Rituals of Resilience.
In one of the MAEP pieces, about two dozen different fabric patterns form an undulating line encircling a woman dancing. The quilt has become a sort of aura around her, feeding right into her yellow floral dress. The trees in the background are nothing more than purple line drawings dripping down the golden woodgrain. The woman, however, is fully rendered, her face highlighted ever so slightly by hints of luminescent green. She, too, is smiling out at us.
“We’re so complicated and layered,” Barlow says with a small laugh. “But I’m really fascinated by how we navigate the world, especially now, how we find joy amongst all the pain, and how we lean on each other to make it through.”
Murals created in 2020 by Creatives After Curfew, honoring Tony McDade, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor.
Fostering community around art is central to more than just her painting practice. It informs everything that she does professionally, and she does a lot. In addition to her studio practice, Barlow has been volunteering with MidWest Mixed for the past seven years, facilitating connections between people of mixed race and multiracial backgrounds. She is also a core member of Creatives After Curfew, a large crew of muralists in Minneapolis who’ve been making murals together since the city was covered in plywood after the murder of George Floyd. And now she works as Director of PF Studios, the art studio program Public Functionary runs out of the Northrup King Building in Northeast, providing subsidized space and professional development to over 20 young BIPOC artists.
I ask her, with everything she’s got going on, what is it that keeps her from burning out?
“What keeps me going is the work feeds itself. Now, even though I’m doing several things, they’re all very interrelated. There’s a conversation I can have at Creatives After Curfew that feels very connected to a conversation in the studio program, which then impacts how I’m thinking about my own work, which then makes me want to bring up something at Midwest Mixed. It doesn’t feel like I have to separate parts of myself to do the work.
“We create these super weird and wonderful lives as artists,” she continues. “There’s no roadmap, but when you pause and take a step back to look at what you've been doing, you’re like ‘Oh, I’m here. This is what I dreamed of.’”
Right now, Barlow has just finished up a commission for the Minnesota State Fair – the Official 2022 Commemorative Art, no less – and she is now gearing up for a solo show at Bockley Gallery in the fall. “The joy was always there,” she says, speaking about her work up to this point. But this show, she tells me, “will have very intentionally joyful images.” She is still in the early phases of seeing what will work in the studio, let alone in the gallery, but she gives me a hint: there will probably be some cosplay. Barlow has always worn her sci-fi love on her sleeve, dressing up in elaborate costumes as Star Wars, Star Trek, or MCU characters, and a few years back some of her own cosplay even made it all the way onto some of her canvases. Now she’s revisiting the idea with a renewed focus on community.
“There is something really interesting about cosplay, especially for people of color, especially for Black cosplayers,” she explains. “You can kind of live outside of your prescribed identity and be a different person. The mask that you put on or the role that you play in cosplay sometimes can feel more true to you than the experiences you have outside of cosplay. Because you get to be anything, in a way, and it’s really expansive.”
It makes sense, for work so rooted in the past and so viscerally connected to the present, to start thinking about the future. And to think about future audiences at the same time. “I see myself almost as archiving stories,” she says. “Trying to create space for images and stories that I would have loved to have seen as a kid, particularly when I felt lost and alone and like nobody knew or cared about my lived experience. I didn’t really see that in museums or elevated in that kind of way.”
Two works from the exhibition Loving. Top: Derek and James, Oil, pastel, and acrylic on panel, 48” x 48”, 2017. Bottom: Sweetness, Oil, pastel, acrylic on panel, 40” x 30”, 2020
I wonder if framing joy – particularly Black joy in America – as inherently revolutionary is its own kind of theft: disallowing a smile from simply being a smile. In Derricotte’s poem, the narrator wonders why a pet fish would mean so much to a young, Black girl.
…What does her love have to do
with five hundred years of
sorrow, then joy coming up like a
small breath, a
bubble? What does it have to do
with the graveyards of the
Atlantic, in her mother’s
It's a hell of a weight to put on happiness. Wandering out of the Rituals of Resilience gallery, the last smiles I see at Mia – at least on the walls – are in two photos by Gordon Parks. Fittingly, they are on the faces of protestors. Some are dressed in suits, others are wearing sweatshirts printed with Malcolm X’s face. His image is stern and serious, but they are smiling, laughing, and hollering. The joy, of course, is part of the fight. The essence of privilege is when your joy doesn't have to be, when it can exist apart from words like resistance and resilience.
A few years back, Barlow won a State Arts Board grant to create portraits of interracial families as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia. We've all been raised to believe that those fights were won, that those chapters in the history books were set in stone. Now, just in the past month, the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that may well strike down Roe v. Wade also opened the door to roll back Loving as well. As always in this country, the past is present.
But the future is ours to imagine, and Barlow is thinking ahead, in both her painting practice and her community work. “How do we break those patterns and try to create something new?” she asks.
“What happens when we really love up on each other?” ◼︎
Banner image: Grandmother and Child (detail), Oil, pastel, acrylic, quilted fabric on panel, 48” x 48”, 2019
Help keep independent arts journalism alive in the Twin Cities.