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The first time I attended an art fair in Los Angeles after moving here from New York nearly a decade ago, I wondered why so many out-of-town galleries filled their booths with hyper-saturated paintings and bright, shiny sculptures. Since then, I have often speculated about whether the rest of the world believes that those of us in la-la land only enjoy an empty-calorie diet when it comes to art and culture.
Needless to say, I was intrigued when the young British artist, Sophie Barber, chose to lean into Hollywood glam for her solo show at Chris Sharp Gallery—her first in the United States. Titled Kim and Kanye kiss without tongues, the show consists of 15 painted reproductions of cheesy celebrity photographs—a shift from Barber’s typical art-about-art approach—on super-small canvases that are shaped into irregular, pillow-like forms. Elsewhere, Barber’s canvas-stuffed canvases have charmingly depicted various Franz West public sculptures or the headlines of exhibition reviews, like Mark Leckey by Catherine Wood in ArtReview. The chunky paint on puffy surfaces is a casual and cool marriage of painting and sculpture, but in the past, the point or purpose of these pieces’ physicality has not been immediately evident.
All of the works at Chris Sharp Gallery, however, have more of an implied correlation between their material form and subject matter. Each painting is about the size of an iPhone or an iPad, making it easy to imagine the artist mining social media for her alluring inspirations. The way these subjects are depicted in paint vacillates between quick confidence and self-conscious fumbling—brushstrokes alternate between loose and facile to choppy and cumbersome; some skin looks soft and manicured, like the rich and famous prefer, while other faces look stretched-out, bruised, or bulky. This disconnect is deceiving. Barber creates compositions and handles paint in a pseudo-self-aware, faux-naïve manner that could easily and equally make you be both a believer and a skeptic. As a result, it’s difficult to determine whether these works come from a place of sincere fandom or cynical pandering (or, most likely, both).
The majority of these paintings are based on pictures taken by celebrity photographers—a more dignified and glorified paparazzi. The photographers range from visual artist (Wolfgang Tillmans) to high-profile (Annie Leibovitz) and the celebs similarly span from visual artist (David Hockney) to pop culture (Frank Ocean, Kim Kardashian, and Kanye West). In every instance, Barber writes the names of the subject and the photographer, providing both credit and context through captions. Is it a slapdash indexing of images or a half-assed homage to superstars?
In the back gallery space, there are a few slightly larger, yet slightly more intimate paintings of celebrities posing with their dogs. In one, Megan Thee Stallion sports a bikini top and confidently poses for the camera, a greyscale puppy held in her right hand (Megan Thee Stallion with her puppies, all works 2021). In another, Travis Scott coyly cradles a corgi in front of his face (Travis Scott holding a corgi)—the dog stares blankly at the camera while the rapper matches his pal’s distant gaze. Despite being painted in a way likewise attentive and crude as the others, these pet portraits are somehow more endearing, more empathetic—perhaps it’s the pups, or perhaps it’s the way Barber humanizes the spectacle of publicity with her uneven touch.
Through her funky paint application, Barber presents the celebrities’ psyches in a way that glossy spreads rarely do. Celebrity culture can be garish and gawky, but it can also be entertaining and edifying. So can these paintings. Your opinion of them and the subjects they portray probably says as much about you as the artist who painted them. After cycling through the pristine gallery multiple times, I still hadn’t fully figured out how Barber feels about celebrities or their culture; all I could tell for certain was that she cares about art, and honestly, it feels like she’s in the process of figuring out what that means to her, which I must say is pretty refreshing.
Sophie Barber: Kim and Kanye kiss without tongues runs from May 1–June 12, 2021 at Chris Sharp Gallery (4650 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90016).