Fibers of Being: taylor barnes

The Austin-based artist explores texture as a form of tension, and in concurrent exhibition projects, layered textures speak to the layers of history and hierarchy


Artist taylor barnes prefers simplicity when depicting complexities.

“If someone can tell me how they feel in a single sentence, I connect to that more than a dissertation,” she casually points out during her online Coffee Chat with Big Medium’s Coka Treviño earlier this summer.

Now, barnes’s exhibition “Pressure” is currently on view at Big Medium.

Installation view of taylor barnes’s exhibition “Pressure” at Big Medium. From left, “Nah #2 appeared),” “EndsBeginning,” “ProtectCollectReject” and “Feel,” all Fee motion sewing and charcoal on cloth, 2020. Image courtesy the artist.

A solo show consisting of nine original works, “Pressure” beautifully embodies barnes’s exploration of bodies in her art. Black female forms drawn with charcoal on untreated canvas which convey a dark richness that reads as radiant light. Delicate hand-sewn details and charcoal particles settling onto new surfaces become unseeable once recognized.

“My work comes from this spark of realization that so much is not realized,” she explains.

Barnes, who graduated with an MFA in Fibers from the University of North Texas in 2019, has been using natural materials such as charcoal and cloth for several years. Their straightforward function draws direct attention to the labor which goes into her work, as well as the historical and theoretical basis of that work.

“The depth she expresses is so raw,” says Treviño, Big Medium’s program manager. “It just takes my breath away, seeing what she can do with charcoal.”

During our one-on-one gallery tour, Treviño explains how barnes continued applying charcoal during the install, creating strong black fringes from the canvas onto the wall. In some places, diffuse black particles have turned white walls grey; a way of challenging the space itself and how it holds the work. Barnes’s artist statement, neatly handwritten in charcoal on the gallery wall, further solidifies this stance:

“These works’ collective mantra silence no longer protects us; we will not exist here removes the strain placed on black women to teach and exist in spaces where we are unwanted and places agency on how we position ourselves in this revolution.”

“Pressure” is a literal, figural declaration of Black bodies in white spaces.

Barnes, who points out she was the only Black individual in her graduate program, expresses the importance of having people of color enrolled in such programs. She says it was difficult to be thrust into a role of one, though it ultimately led to her strong interest in theory and research.

Black feminist writers such as Audre Lorde and bell hooks have significantly shaped her understanding of her own role and process as an artist. (Like hooks, barnes prefers to spell her name in lowercase as a way to focus on ideas rather identity.)

The oil paintings of African-American portraitist Barkley Hendricks and the sculptural works of French-American Louise Bourgeois have also strongly influenced her own interdisciplinary approach to making 2D and 3D pieces.

Texture is a form of tension, says barnes, and by layering various textures, her work speaks to the tension and layers of history and hierarchy. By working with cloth surfaces which haven’t been treated, she is able to more easily manipulate those layers. Charcoal is beautiful that way; it can be permanent but it can also turn to dust.

nstallation view of taylor barnes exhibition "Pressure."
Installation view of taylor barnes’s exhibition “Pressure” at Big Medium. The artist’s energetically scribed lines skid off the cloth drawings and onto the wall, and she left the bits of charcoal stick on the gallery floor. Image courtesy taylor barnes.

Barnes was born in 1993 in Austin, though she spent years living in Denton before recently moving back to her hometown. She is currently represented by Dallas’s Erin Clulely Gallery. This year she was awarded the Sylvia Hougland Emerging Artist Award for “Make Art With Purpose 2020.” At 27, barnes has shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions around Texas, as well as an art fair in Miami.

“Pressure” is one of two projects she currently has on view in Austin. Her installation (un)boxis a stone’s throw from Big Medium, at the Museum of Human Achievement’s Cage Match Project.

Curated by Ariel René Jackson, Cage Match Project is a site-specific series, located just outside the warehouse art space, where artists participate in rounds to install their work within a large caged trailer. “Round 14: (un)box” consists of three “crate-like forms” of varying sizes — the precious cargo of humanity — where wood and nails evoke flesh and bone.

Taken from her research on barracoons — holding pens which were once used to transport prisoners and slaves during the Atlantic slave trade — barnes reimagines the concept of a cage as a refuge.

Detail of "(un)box" by taylor barnes, courtesy of Cade Match Project. Photo by Ariel Jackson
Detail of “(un)box” by taylor barnes, courtesy of Cade Match Project. Photo by Ariel René Jackson

Her use of natural materials in “(un)box,” including fiber and fallen limbs, are not so different from the charcoal and cloth used in “Pressure.” The tree limbs have been painted black to resemble burnt wood. Barnes’s affinity for charcoal, it turns out, began with ceramics. While using the raku firing technique — where wood chips or other combustible items scorch the object being fired — she noticed marks being left on the ceramic pieces.

These marks became more compelling than the object itself: barnes tossed the pot, but kept the wood chips. Her mark-making soon found its way from ceramics to fabrics.

This is not an easy time for any artist having a show, but unsurprisingly barnes has managed to make do with this new material. “COVID gives us the privilege to slow down,” she tells Trevino during their Zoom chat. It’s allowed her to think about “the bigger questions” she says, before assuredly adding:

“‘Rona’s given me a beat.” 

“Pressure” is on view at Big Medium, 916 Springdale Road, until October 10. “Round 14: (Un)box” is on view at the Museum of Human Achievement’s Cage Match Project until October 23.

Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell is an arts and culture writer based in Austin. She is the author of Black Ice: Poems (Fly by Night Press, 2006). In addition to Sightlines, her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Canadian Art, Glasstire, and Tribes Magazine. She is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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