By Tim Ambrahams
© Jeanette Barnes 2010. All Rights Reserved
Jeanette Barnes: Tim Abrahams meets the artist to talk about her work and the human aspect of construction.
Jeanette Barnes has yet to get angry with Las Vegas. In her studio in Hackney Wick in London, Barnes has taped a sheet of paper to the wall and on it has sketched a picture of the junction between Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard. In its subject it is a departure. Barnes has been documenting London’s major construction projects throughout the last 20 years. Sketching quickly with 4B pencil on site, and then transferring the details with charcoal on to huge landscapes of paper.
Sitting to one side in the studio is a stunning charcoal landscape of the Olympic Stadium under construction. The picture captures the drama of construction: the intensity of materials required, the choreography of machinery and manpower, the energy and effort expended. The Las Vegas picture, though, is something of a let down. While impressive in its detailing, the streetscape lacks dynamism, there is no movement, no sense of a society being built or in deep flux as there is in the best of her work. ‘Don’t look at it. It’s no good yet,’ says the artist. ‘I need to get cross with it.’
The prospect of an angry Jeanette Barnes is a fascinating one. In person she has the good humour and candour of a true Lancastrian, both genuinely puzzled by the fact that she has been working in an unfashionable medium at an economically unviable scale for the last 20 years and resolved to see through her own aesthetic choices to their logical conclusion. It must be quite a sight to see her in full fury. Standing at 1.59m, she draws on paper 1.5m in height and about 2m in length.
She does a quick and, one hopes for the sake of her husband the well-known artist Paul Brandford who shares her studio, exaggerated impression of herself drawing. Its like a cross between the conductor Seiji Ozawa and Animal from The Muppets. ‘When I draw, the paper is almost my height. I almost feel like I’m exactly in it. It’s the optimum size because if I go any bigger I wouldn’t be able to get the framed pictures up and down the stairs,’ she says.
The anger comes later and it is expressed on the smaller scale. ‘I attack the detail,’ she says. ‘That’s what I get cross with.’ Working with compressed charcoal, she moves lines, adds layers, obliterates details. It is a ruthless process. ‘I do these gorgeous little building details and then they end up as three bloody smudges. I do a great deal of tight information then I stand back and think: what’s the least I can say? That’s when I get cross.’
Pictures like the seminal version of the Olympics stadium are like composite stop-animations. Layers of activity blurred at a later stage. She’s been sketching the stadium for two years and the Aquatic Centre for one, seeking out vantage points around the site and fighting the Olympic Delivery Authority’s reluctance to let anyone document anything that happens inside their kingdom.
It’s no wonder that the world of architecture and construction has shown some interest in her work down the years. In 2000, Rivington Street Studio was acting as design consultants for the Financial Services Authority in Canary Wharf. In this role, Charles Thomson of Rivington commissioned Barnes to do two large pieces of the building under construction. He also bought a couple of her other smaller pieces of Heron Quays and the Jubilee Line under construction. A catalogue that Thomson wrote at the time nailed what was best about Barnes’ drawing. ‘Her work celebrates the energy and dynamism of construction and captures an atmosphere that is timeless, a reflection of the effort expended by successive generations as the urban landscape changes,’ he wrote.
Yet although architects have been supportive of her work, it still deserves more. Barnes shrugs. ‘Who wants a building site? Foster is one of the only ones who has bought my work. I’d done a Gherkin and put it into the Summer Show at the Royal Academy. I was at home cleaning the freezer and the phone went. “Hello, this is Norman Foster…”’ Jon Emery, the former head of development at Hammerson’s and the man who reinvented Birmingham’s Bullring, was a fan. He commissioned Barnes to do 12 A1 drawings on site during the construction of the Oracle Shopping Centre in Reading.
And yet, despite an increased interest in drawing in the art world, her work still hasn’t sold. The pencil on the page is seen as a return to authenticity – a response, perhaps to the factory-produced conceptual art of artists like Damien Hirst. A great deal of drawing sold in contemporary galleries is whimsical or introspective, concerned with its own supposed authenticity rather than as a means of refashioning the world. None of it has the drama and scale of the work produced by Jeanette Barnes. It is telling that, apart from the second prize in the Jerwood in 2003 (her husband won first place), the main plaform for her work has been the Royal Academy Summer Show, where, amid other timid offerings, her work stands out.
Yet rolled up in the corner of her studio, Barnes has a hugely important collection of pictures that document the capital’s major projects, which have determined the way the capital has changed shape: Liverpool Street, the Jubilee Line Extension, the Gherkin, the Shard and biggest of all the Olympics. She’s drawn Las Vegas and Ground Zero in New York while sitting in a bar that overlooks the site, but one senses that these are side projects. ‘I went to Las Vegas because it was just so cold in London. I kept complaining to Paul, “I can’t go out and draw,”’ says Barnes. ‘And he said, “why don’t you just go.”’ She got on the last plane to leave Gatwick before it was was iced up and sketched in the relative warmth of the high Nevada planes.
But the London pictures are the main body of her work. For the last 20 years Barnes has taught life drawing for the Royal Academy’s Outreach Progamme, again with her husband. (She whispers it apologetically but she also teaches at The Prince Charles’s Drawing School.) Going into secondary schools for a single day, with a nude model, pencils, charcoal and some paper, they get the students to produce about 16 sketches by the end of the play. ‘After we’ve done the second exercise they really get into it. At first they don’t even look. A 16 year old boy isn’t going to admit they haven’t seen a naked woman,’ she says. Many of her models are actors between work. Children, she says, must be stunned to see someone who has been nude in their school stroll across the background of Emmerdale
It is interesting to consider what has happened to the human form in her work. While her husband’s work, with whom she also teaches, is more obviously about the human form, often in highly dramatic or iconic moments, the body is almost totally absent from her work. Crowds are fleeting and transparent. The human presence is often expressed by the machine it sits within. It is not until you consider that London itself is the body that you see where the life drawing has come into play. Largely uninvited, Barnes has been documenting how the body of London has been growing, with violence in unexpected directions and with its own dramatic logic. It is a very human story. Because while she draws landscapes, Barnes is a great champion of the human aspect of construction.