SAIC painting teacher Carl Barratta talks finding inspiration everywhere at once
Interview by Natalie Edwards
Carl Barratta teaches “How to steal,” a painting class about appropriation. He is a self-proclaimed “tall museum staff secretary guy, who lugs things around, fixes stuff, and teaches people to use computers.” His secret X-Men power is that he can remember every little painting, even doodles, that his students have created from the five years he has been teaching. He’ll be teaching his class again next year. He graduated from SAIC in 2005.
NE: There are a lot of monsters in your work.
What’s up with that?
CB: The monsters aren’t really monsters. I mean, parts of them are made from monsters. That is to say, I’m not sure they’re monsters. They’re not very monstrous. They’re more pitiful and mundane, or at least I want them to act that way without being cheesy. You’ll never see one missing a bus. But you might see one staring into a lake of snakes. Maybe. I trace a lot from Ultraman magazines that I get from some friends from Japan. I also trace and draw from a lot of mystical and alchemy drawings. I trace and draw from Indian miniatures, too. I also use a lot of film stills from Kung Fu movies to get the right scene. I also read a ton of mythology from all over. I listen to a lot of music, which helps a lot. I also read piles of romantic poetry. As in The Romantics.
I’m a terrible writer, but I write a lot, too. Anyway, that’s where I start from. Usually the piece doesn’t look anything like the original set of images I get inspired from. Rotting corpses, circling crows, sad rockers, righteous lightning, impending storms, the edge of dusk, murky bogs, golden sun-lit rivers, curling fingers, burning fires, dumbly crouching shadows, Flash Gordon, freaked-out kings, freaked-out regular people, freaked-out animals; I want them all in every painting.
Lost in the woods? Just come back from some mystical journey? Just got back from war? Just got back from killing everyone you know? Like to tap dance on flying swords? I like paintings about that. But to have all of that in one painting is something I don’t see. So I try to get as much of it in with my own work.
NE: Dude, what’s with all this
violence and blood and gore? Even your trees are decapitated. But it’s still pretty.
CB: I like villains. Sometimes villains are even better when they’re not there. I don’t mean not included, but missing. When they’re missing, I think the landscape fills in for the missing figures. The open narrative is reflected in the trees, the flowers, the rocks and so on. They satellite the characters’ mood. Sometimes, especially recently, if the characters are in the piece, they are asleep or dead and scantily adorned with flashy clothes. Instead the landscape around them is adorned with tumbling trees, and weird nightmare grass and whatever paint mistakes I can make look like I did it all on purpose. The paintings as a whole are a series of comb-overs trying to hide all the bald wrong moves that happen while I paint.
And to answer your question, blood and gore is awesome.
NE: Some people may recognize you as the guy who is always wearing Hawaiian shirts, no matter the season. Help us understand.
CB: My folks accidentally donated all my winter clothes about 12 years ago. At the time I was living in Philly. We had negative 30-degree weather that winter. I would roll up to work, bars, openings, the store, anywhere in a Hawaiian shirt and a light vintage leather jacket. I looked like a frozen used-car salesman. After a while people thought I really loved those shirts. I was too broke to buy a sweater. I was too broke to buy a sweater for about three years. Since to everyone not me, I obviously loved those types of shirts, everyone gave me theirs. Flash forward 14 years and I have 40-plus of them. Once, about seven years ago, I bought a solid colored shirt and felt naked in it. I mean naked as in an ashamed, sad-faced clown, as apposed to nude, which is like ‘TAH DAH!’ I couldn’t look people in the face. Never again with the solid shirt!
I have rules. No fire, no boogie boards, no Asian writing, no dragons, no lions or tigers, no throwing stars, no wooden paneled surfer-car nonsense. No Dragon Ball Z, no stoned cartoon characters, no licence plates, no half-assed drawn flowers. Maybe sea shells.
When I go to Trader Joe’s for peanut-butter-filled pretzels, I have visions of punching all the workers in the face. Especially when they ring that bell. Insincere, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing is a big pet peeve of mine, and those guys rock insincere boldly. Look, for 12 years I’ve worn way over 100 Hawaiian shirts, and I know when I see one worn insincerely. It’s like Highlander. I get a shiver up my spine. I’m taking notes, folks. I’m making a master list, and I’m hiding it in the hollow of an old tree, and I’m waiting for the right moment to whip it out and take bloody red vengeance on those pie-faced chodes.
NE: What do you have planned? Where can we see your paintings these days?
CB: I just had two group shows with new paintings in each. I’m currently hiding out making a huge pile of new paintings. This winter I’m going to work on a huge piece. Light a candle so it doesn’t shit the bed. Unless something comes up in the meantime, I’ll probably have a solo show late 2010/ early 2011 at my awesome gallery, Western Exhibitions, here in Chicago. I might do a show out in South Dakota. Long story. We’ll see. Hiding out for a year or so has been great for my studio practice.
NE: What advice do you give to baby painters? I mean, real babies and then also undergrads.
CB: Look at everything. Do the work. Stay with it and suck it up, because being poor is how we artists roll. Party when you can. Get mad at stuff you think is lame, burn down entire city blocks, punch out jerks, figure out how to make paintings that you love, and remember: T-Rex is the sassiest band in the universe.