“My work involves instinct and attitude. This happens not only when I’m in search of the right object, which is when I’m in huntress mode, when I’m super focused on precisely identifying and capturing the day’s prey. That’s also the attitude that I have when I’m painting.” —Ana Barriga
In the 1911 poem “The Lonely Hunter,” the author Fiona MacLeod, the female pseudonym of the Scottish author William Sharp, asks: “Green wind from the green-gold branches, what is the song you bring? / What are all songs for me, now, who no more care to sing?” Despite the proto-non-binary speaker’s disavowal of singing, the reader understands the poem to be a song—an absence that has, miraculously, given rise to poetic substance.
Twenty-nine years after it was originally written, the poem’s refrain became the title of Carson McCullers’s haunting 1940 novel, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” which similarly deals with isolation, but also with the energy derived from personal creation. The obsessive energy, that is, which artists pour into imagining, crafting and detailing individual worlds that may, in the right hands, take the felicitous forms of bold paintings, vibrant murals and oddly familiar sculptures.
All too aptly, MacLeod’s/Sharp’s refrain came to mind after a recent conversation with thirty-something Spanish artist Ana Barriga. A colorful juggernaut of a painter’s painter who flourishes in mobile studio mode while admixing what used to be termed hyperrealism and rummage-sale-inflected pop, her generative example inspires a correction to the verse’s celebrated reprise. Put succinctly, the Spaniard’s is a spirited case of the heart as a happy huntress.
Barriga’s paintings, which a close friend of hers pegged perfectly—along with their creator—as both “pretty and raffish,” begin with what the artist terms “bits of reality that no longer mean anything.” By this she means plastic figurines, tchotchkes, porcelain doo-dads and bits of bric-a-brac she encounters on regular visits to flea markets, souks, bazaars, rastros and marchés au puces. These she “sources,” “breaks,” “paints,” “manipulates” and otherwise “transforms” into tabletop arrangements, which she then photographs to use as jumping off points for her celebrated oil and enamel canvases of smudged, graffitied, sprayed and otherwise altered kitsch fantasias.
Barriga’s interventions accentuate and transmogrify the meanings of her irremediably secondhand, erstwhile personal objects. Restaged by the painter like so many multicolored troll dolls, her objets trouvés acquire ever-novel combinatory meanings—think hand painted tarot cards regularly scattered and put back together—while suggesting, among other referential possibilities, the sincere embrace of homage and the pleather lash of ironic distancing. Yet there remains throughout the artist’s streetwise borrowings a nod toward painting’s history. Picture Giorgio Morandi still-lifes animated by maneki-neko cats, M&M colored statuary and devilish putti.
“I consider myself a hunter, [someone] who selects the best objects that society has thrown out,” Barriga told one interviewer about her magpie aesthetic and layered painterly process. “I intervene them in a playful way, with sarcasm and irony, and this allows me to remove seriousness from important subjects such as death, sexuality, or religion. The way I manipulate these objects, the way I paint and cover them with my own designs, besides pointing to the way in which I conceive the creative act, possibly point to the way I conceive of life itself.”
Life, for Barriga, began in the unlikeliest of locales for a contemporary painter. Born and raised in a tiny, one church town called Cuartillos (pop. 1300) in Spain’s southernmost region of Jerez de la Frontera, the budding artist learned to alternately flourish and wander amid what global art world types might term an ur-provincial wilderness. The daughter of a highly creative mechanic and a homemaker—papá designed and fabricated the tools he couldn’t afford, mamá hand-stitched clothes for Ana and her two sisters—she spent a number of years tending bar at the local watering hole, dreaming dusty Jamón Jamón dreams while awaiting news of more worldly futures.
At age 19, Barriga attended her first museum exhibition (a José de Ribera and Caravaggio twofer at Seville’s Museo de Bellas Artes, which she describes as “like visiting Mars,” especially as she “didn’t know whether ‘Ribera’ and ‘Caravaggio’ were one artist or two”). Taking encouragement from her bar boss, Juanito, she moved to Jerez, the county seat, to matriculate in a degree program in cabinet making. That experience led her to a succession of courses in the applied arts. In time, she enrolled at Seville’s Facultad de Bellas Artes to take up painting. After applying brush to surface, she says with characteristic brio, she nearly exploded with joy.
“I probably had a greater chance of getting into drugs or prostitution than I did becoming a painter,” Barriga told this writer, not without the positivity of someone cognizant of the advantages of being crafty and supremely practical. “From cabinet making I learned a love of materials and of doing things with your hands,” she says. “When you work with wood or with paint, you learn that the medium needs its own autonomy. You can’t just carve whatever you like; wood has its own grain, its knottiness. The same is true of painting. You may think you are in control of the medium, color, composition, iconography, texture and a thousand other elements, but there is always a part of painting that controls you.” Few utterances could be further from the contemporary CalArts ideal of de-skilled post-studio art.
Barriga has described her introduction to painting as an Alice In Wonderland moment, a free-fall into an agujero negro maravilloso, which in English translates into “a marvelous black hole.” By this she means that the practice of painting presented to her younger self equivocally as both a dare and an abyss. A rabbit hole, Barriga explains, because she hadn’t the foggiest of the depth of the void she was jumping into. Alternately, she says, that lack of knowledge constituted “a challenge she could simply not pass up.” “It was a spontaneous thing,” she ventures, shrugging off the idea of having been intimidated. Guided by “a certain innocence that may appear as daring to others,” she plucked up courage and launched a series of gimlet-eyed adventures in figural countersense, through-the-looking-glass fantasy and cheerfully metaphorical painting.
The daredevil leap into the void has been Barriga’s modus operandi ever since. It has led to an abundance of gallery and museum exhibitions in cities like Madrid, Paris, New York, London and Seoul, and to several recent reputation-enhancing projects. Among these are a nearly fifty-foot work she painted for the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (From Animals to Gods, 2019), several outdoor murals she made for different foundations in Valencia, Madrid and Roubaix (she gifted this last city a stylized siren and three smiling cats which she fittingly titled A World For You, 2021), and an eight-foot sculpture of a splayed feline (Laki Cat, 2020) for which she cannibalized her own ludic 2D imagery (notably, she self-financed the XL freestanding object before it was successfully editioned by a Hong Kong multiples company). Because Barriga’s Chesire blithely exposes its viscera—a four-leaf clover represents its lungs, an elephant its liver, and a rainbow its snaking intestines—the figure reads alternately toy-like and grimly anatomic. Think Takashi Murakami and Nikki de St. Phalle channeled through Salvador Dali’s gruesome Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936).
“My paintings speak about serious things in a playful way,” Barriga told one interviewer by way of relaying the notion that pleasure often serves as a supreme beard for pain. Translation: the rabbits, horses, cats, frogs, bears, white tigers and other fantastical beings that conform her riotous bestiary suggest, among other possibilities—see the powerfully accretive canvases De los días azules/On Blue Days (2020) and Primitivo, salvaje y extraterrestre/Primitive, Wild and Alien (2022)— the mother of all garage sales, but also the sordidness of tatty treasures and lives dispatched to the waste bin of history. About her effort to recover the magic of these loaded objects she says: “I’m interested in the culture of disposability, in rescuing something that once had value and was thrown away. I believe part of my job is to return to such objects some of their past dignity.”
Arguably, what Barriga does is return “life” to the basic conception of the still-life in our own age of mass production and profligate disposability. Not unlike her predecessors Juan Sánchez Cotán, Jean Simeón Chardin and the aforementioned Morandi, the Jerez native assembles—some might even say hoards—signal materials to represent both the society in which she thrives and a worldview that, for all its celebrations of gimcrack, teems with critical irony, even satire. In so doing, Barriga arrives at her own version of an upcycled, 21st century, luminous baroque—a style that casts her in the eternal role of happy huntress, and the world’s legions of humble cast-offs as joyous prey. Few painting projects appear as radiantly cheerful or as powerfully allegorical today.