Barber is an artist after Virginia Woolf who urged us 'record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall', only try swapping atoms for thumbs and mind for touch-screen.
Made on the Wing: Sophie Barber's Love Birds
‘How Much Love Can a Love Bird Love, Can a Love Bird Love a Love Bird’ is Sophie Barber’s inaugural show at Alison Jacques and it is surely the best exhibition title of the year. The tongue twister began life as an innocuous entry in the artist’s search history. The result perhaps should have been fleeting – can you remember what you Googled a week ago? – a diminutive memory gone like a bird glimpsed out the corner of your eye. Yet, here we have it, enshrined.
"My dad and I would go bird watching together at Dungeness, we’ve always had birds around"
Drawing from found shots of A-list celebrities who brush shoulders with colourful birds of paradise, across canvases iPad and iPhone-size, Barber updates the tradition of genre painting for the 21st century, when much of everyday life now occurs mediated by screens and Explore pages. With little need for tired distinctions between high and low culture, these are intuitive (often crumpled, tactile, unstretched) canvases with thickly worked paint. As if made on the wing.
Your exhibition “How Much Love Can a Love Bird Love, Can a Love Bird Love a Love Bird” mixes big, heavy-looking canvases with small, chunky pebble-sized ones. Could you talk about the role of scale in your work?
A lot of the time it’s necessity, you can’t imagine the image on any other size than a canvas the size of your thumb and it wouldn’t work the size of DVD. There’s something about shrinking sculpture, people, places, into something you can hold in your hand.
It’s also practical, it takes a lot of energy to make the big paintings in the studio, it’s nice to work from the table at home in a more casual way. Then you can dip in and out of painting whilst watching Loose Women.
Why do birds flit so frequently through your canvases? Do you have a special connection to them?
My dad and I would go bird watching together at Dungeness, we’ve always had birds around. I’d never painted birds before this show really. The show at Goldsmiths [in 2020], where I’d painted bird hides and houses and tents, was as close as I could get to birds. They're so magical it's threatening to paint. So I started painting images of birds that photographers had taken. You can't go too far wrong with that, it's like Chinese whispers.
"It’s nice to work from the table at home in a more casual way. Then you can dip in and out of painting whilst watching Loose Women"
Where do you tend to source the subjects for your paintings?
I take things from magazines, books, google images, Instagram, get rid of what I don’t want and add what I do want, the same with other paintings — we take what we like and eventually have your own language.
I’m dyslexic so there’s always spelling mistakes but mainly because I don’t see the words as words I see it as image, I just want the letters that look good and if you can mildly understand what I’m saying that’s fine. Once you’ve got the meat of an image you can add what ever gravy, vegetables you want. My boyfriend's photoshopped a puppy to rapper Stefflon Don for me before because I couldn’t find an image of her with a puppy and that worked fine.
"Once you’ve got the meat of an image you can add what ever gravy, vegetables you want."
How do you feel about celebrity culture? Would you agree that here, you treat it with some affection?
I didn’t set out to paint celebrities, you just take in what you see. The images from the show that I painted are images that I love, and that I’m drawn to in some way. The painting of Skepta kissing Naomi Campbell’s neck, I know that feeling and I loved painting that kiss.
"The images from the show that I painted are images that I love, and that I’m drawn to in some way. The painting of Skepta kissing Naomi Campbell’s neck, I know that feeling and I loved painting that kiss."
There’s also something about assuming or storytelling through paintings. putting Kendrick Lamar at Camber Sands, the green bin in the bottom left looks like the recycling place so I imagined him doing the tip run down at Camber. Just isn’t going to happen. And Justin and Hailey, I’m sure they’ve never heard of Monty or Gardener's World, but I love playing with those ideas. You can do what you want in painting and it’s about the only place in the world you can do that.
Cover image: Skepta kisses Naomi Campbells neck, she likes it, 2021. Courtesy of Alison Jacques, London © Sophie Barber
Interview by Sammi Gale