Performance and mark making are not among the usual concerns of a photographer, nor is powdery dust usually a welcome addition to the darkroom, but for England-born and Los Angeles-based artist Kelly Barrie these have become central components of his practice. Barrie creates drawings built from loose luminescent pigment which he documents in multiple photographs. Though at first take there is a disparity of subject matter addressed by the CalArts graduate, the works are united by a concern for the past, evoking notions of time both in subject and his hybrid technique.
Among the earliest examples is Tree of Tenere (2008), a haunting image of a single tree set against a pitch-black background. The image was inspired by a photograph of the lone tree that stood in the Sahara Desert where an ancient oasis had once existed. The long-isolated tree stood as a landmark for travelers for time immemorial until it was struck down by a drunk driver in 1973. This also happened to be the year Barrie was born–the son of internationally recognized conceptual artists, Mary Kelly and Ray Barrie.
Standing in his studio surrounded by preparatory sketches for his upcoming exhibition, Barrie describes the inspiration for his multi-step process, which began with an image of the tree of Tenere that he had reproduced on a transparency. “There was a 10-foot roll of black seamless hanging on the wall,” Barrie recalls, “about four feet of which had curled out onto the floor. I gazed past the transparent tree image to my feet below, positioned on the black seamless amidst a bunch of other dusty footprints… The floor became the background to the transparent image I held in my hand.” From this moment of inspiration, Barrie pulled more of the rolled black paper onto the ground, scattering the pigment onto its surface and began to “walk the tree” from memory, the movements of his feet dragging the pigment across the paper’s surface creating the organic patterns that evolved into the image of the tree.
Then the documentation begins. Instead of taking one photograph of the entire image, Barrie captures the image section-by-section, which also effectively destroys the work as Barrie physically moves over the performed drawing. During this process, he welcomes “traces of daily events that enter into the process” such as the breeze of the fan or air conditioner, the soft landing of an insect, meandering cat tracks, the imprint of a cup of coffee, or even a chance footstep as each interaction leaves a slight–or not so slight–trace in the fine powder.
As he photographs the image, the slight difference in the amount of light filtering through the blinds of Barrie’s makeshift studio over the course of the day, is responsible for the subtle dance of soft blue, yellow and pink hues reflecting from the textured surface of the luminescent pigment. “The camera tries to document the ambient light in that moment, that time of day, that focus,” he describes, “Everything is specific to that shot.” Consequently, Barrie moves beyond the traditional notion of photography capturing a single moment. Instead, as he combines multiple shots, digitally “stitching” them together in Photoshop, he effectively merges many moments (up to 150) into one.
Since Tenere, Barrie has delved into his own memories as well as issues of larger social consequence. He re-imagined the vanquished urban playgrounds of his native London–a rope ladder, cement pipe tunnel, a pyramid–in a solo exhibition “Negative Capability,” at the nonprofit LA>Mirror House, commissioned by the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2011, long after coverage had vanished from popular media. Moved by an old newspaper photograph of a house submerged in the surging floodwaters, Barrie recreated the image using his performative process to depict a large sturdy tree in the foreground and the fine edge a common squeegee to depict the flooded home. The final effect is haunting, as the ghostly form and reflection of the house seem to dissolve into the soft-black background.
In his current body of work Barrie reaches into the history of skateboarding in Southern California, combining his own experience with lore of the 1970s and ’80s, when skaters traveled to remote desert locales to skate in deserted pools or huge Ameron cement pipes. “The pipes were larger than anything I’d ever seen,” recalls Barrie of the 24-feet diameter 50-feet long structures which were part of the project to route water from the Rocky Mountains to Arizona and left out in the desert sun to cure. Like his series depicting urban playgrounds before the days of rubber padded footing and safety monitors, Barrie’s images of these graffiti-ridden monumental structures also represent a lost type of youthful adventure and freedom, through a technique that both depicts and depends upon the effects of time.