L.A. Artist Kelly Barrie Talks Creative Process and Skateboarding

Courtesy of Marine Contemporary /Photo: Joe Pugliese
A skateboarder rides Kelly Barrie’s “Skate Wave” at the opening of his “High and Dry” exhibition
by Yasmine Mohseni
Published: March 20, 2013
The London-born, L.A.-based emerging artist Kelly Barrie taps into local surf and skate culture for his solo exhibition “High and Dry” at the Venice, California, gallery Marine Contemporary. Barrie continues to refine his technique of performance-based photography while delving into new territories with his first freestanding sculptural work. Barrie has a keen sense of a material-based experimentation, which allows for unforeseen circumstances to enter a work harmoniously. Perhaps growing up in a family of artists informed his intuitive creative approach: His parents are artists Ray Barrie and Mary Kelly. ARTINFO’s Yasmine Mohseni talked with Barrie about his new show.
Kelly Barrie, “High and Dry Study, circa 1977,” 2012

You have a rather elaborate creative process, what do you call your work and how do you create each piece?

I don’t know how to classify them, I call them “drawing photos.” I essentially document my drawings. It starts with me finding a photo I’m particularly drawn to and reprinting it as an 8-by-10-inch transparency. I use the transparency as a guide, then I figure out how I’m going to perform each aspect. Imagine a piece of black paper on the floor, I have photo-sensitive powder, a sifter and a few wet rags to wipe my feet off. I sift out a general shape [with the photo-sensitive powder] and then I start walking through it. I pick up the powder and transfer it elsewhere with my feet. I’m using the footprint as the reference to the figure, to the body. So, like with “Downhill, circa 1978,” I literally walk out the pipe in a diameter with my feet first. Then I stand in the middle of that big circle drainpipe for a long time and tackle the middle bit. I use a squeegee, which is pulled over and over again until I get enough irregular marks. The pipes are so big you could drive a truck through it so I used my kid’s truck to make some tire patterns on the inside. When I’m done with a drawing, I take small photographs of sections and digitally weave them together into a large photograph.

It’s funny, because I’m recreating a precise concrete pipe that’s been measured out, but concrete isn’t particularly flat and beautiful. It’s really irregular, so I found that the process lent itself to that texture. So, I wipe one off and I start again on top of it. There’s a layering of different moments in time in the drawings. I reuse the paper for the duration of the show, unless it gets totally trashed. I came across this process by accident: I had a piece of black seamless paper in my studio and I was walking around on it in my socks. I had a photo of this tree that I had no idea what I was going to do with, I just knew I was fascinated by it. I ran out of white paper so I printed it on transparency. I was staring at it and then past it into the black paper and saw all these dusty footprints on it. And that’s basically when the light bulb went on and I thought ‘I’m going to walk this out in my head.’ When I do a series of drawings, I do them on the same piece of paper.

Your new series looks to the West Coast skate culture of the 1960s and 1970s. What about this time and subculture inspire you?

The poetics of what skating actually meant — it was this means of self-expression. We’ve institutionalized it and it’s a different beast now, but the heart hasn’t gone away, which is really about finding these sites nobody else knew about or sites created by the government and converting them into temporary playgrounds. I think the improvisational process of recognizing potential sites has a lot to do with my work – like the exhibition I did at LAXART [“Negative Capability,” 2010] around junkyard playgrounds and why children prefer to play in rubble as opposed to a swing set: There’s a tactile immediacy to materials. A lot of my work has to do with lost sites that become converted to temporary playgrounds for self-expression; this is the genesis for all my work. And it’s nice because there’s a bit of personal history there too: When my parents moved from England to teach at Cal Arts, I was 12 or 13. I got a chance to skate some pipes out in Phoenix [part of the Central Arizona Project, a government initiative responsible for the construction of miles of concrete aqueducts to transport water]. They were huge, at least 20 feet in diameter. It was a $3 billion playground.

The focal point of your exhibition is the skate ramp sculpture “Skate Wave circa 1978.” Was it the point of departure for your show?

Not really. The sculpture and other work were pretty simultaneous. I collect skate magazines and I stumbled on a rare copy of Desert Pipes from 1978 and 1979 in a thrift store. I picked it up for a couple of bucks, started going through the images and thought ‘oh god, I remember that.’Desert Pipes was the point of departure. About two weeks after that, I was researching archival photographs and [came across an image of a wave ramp]. I studied it more, saw the silhouette of the light and found out that they called it the wave; it was a wonderful transitional object.

My actual skating period was the 1980s, I’m a child of the half pipe plywood ramp. The phenomenon of pool skating came right before me. Those are the moments I’m most interested in because things are still being worked out, objects are failing, and people are really experimenting. This [wave] shape wasn’t immediately recognizable, just as in a lot of my work it takes time to figure out what you’re looking at or what the issue of it is. I love the pool reference, the craftsmanship of making it in the same way you’d make a surfboard, matching the pool color and basically creating a fiberglass ramp that would allow surfers to recreate those same carving maneuvers they do in the waves but on land.

This is your first freestanding sculpture, did this new creative outlet impact your studio practice?

It opened up my process and triggered some other thoughts in my head. [In my work], I document the drawing and I allow everything to flow into the drawing. I try to make it as democratic as I can, like when the air conditioner comes on and blows the drawing or the cat walks through it. But, funnily enough, I hadn’t considered literally moving the camera. The three-dimensionality of the sculpture opened me up to looking and considering things I hadn’t before. I thought, well, if I just move the camera over here and photograph other stations, I start thinking about other spaces where activities are happening, like in “Cutting Board.” [In my studio], there are all these cut-up pieces of skater magazine pages that were left behind and little piles of photosensitive powder, and I just photographed them on the cutting board, which resonated a lot with me. There seem to be more to those arrangements, which weren’t conscious arrangements.

Who are your influences?

I was always intrigued by the interweaving of art historical commentary in Vik Muniz’s work. The performative aspect comes not only out of my activities as a kid and being very active but also being drawn to Bruce Nauman’s studio performances — that factors into how I think of the studio space as a place of production. A lot of times, people see making things in the studio and not having them reach outside as a failed proposition. I think memory is quite a powerful tool, I need a place in which to perform or exercise that residual unconscious timeline we’re all walking around with.

I’ve always been a big fan of Matthew Barney’s “Drawing Restraint” series. He gave a talk to our whole group when I was doing the Whitney Independent Studies Program and I really got this idea of having obstacles in front of you when you’re doing something, whether they’re self imagined or physically created by yourself, that challenges you to get to your end goal. You have to traverse all this stuff that seems rather elaborate, but I think the end result becomes this residual mark-making from that struggle. A lot of my work investigates that idea of a trace. I was thinking more about that with the marks on the skate ramp, which is a restraint — it’s funny to think about that.

There was a group of skaters skating up the ramp at your opening. Did you set that up?

I knew one or two of them but I decided that I wouldn’t try to orchestrate a session because it would’ve never happened that way, so we just leaked it. I had skaters coming up to me saying, “Dude, thank you for making that, that was a lot of fun and brought back memories.”

What’s really wonderful about these temporary spaces is that they sort of accrue a constituency; at first maybe you’ll catch someone on it once. I guarantee you that by the end of the show, there will be regular skate sessions with a bunch of kids. And that’s how those spaces would function [in the 1960s and 1970s]. Then they would disappear or get busted — it’s constantly in this state of flux. That speaks to the mobility of this sculpture as well: the ability to be spontaneous, you can imagine the collaborative effort to move it. And that’s part of the principle: It’s about collaborating, allowing for self-organization and the self-empowerment that comes with that. So, I really do think of these things on a psychological and political level as much as I think about them in terms of the immediacy of the tactile, of the pleasure of handling and making an object.

“High and Dry” is one view at Marine Contemporary through April 6, 2013.

To see images from the show, click on the slideshow.

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