Image: Alvaro Barrington
Photo: Robbie Lawrence for Fantastic Man, SS24
Featured in Fantastic Man

Alvaro Barrington The art of making art

12 April 2024

Story by Seb Emina



Subjects the artist Alvaro Barrington feels comfortable talking about include 1990s hip-hop, the art of Jeff Koons, the novel ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, the concept of com- munity, the TV series ‘Sex and the City’, the Harlem Renaissance, the European Renais- sance, the sport of basketball, Hieronymus Bosch, and the notion of the Baroque. Alvaro considers himself a painter and much of his work does indeed involve the application of paint, but quite often it also involves materials like yarn, concrete, steel chains, brooms, tyres, and patterned leather. Nor is it limited to flat rectangular spaces: he will sometimes create entire environments that are at once settings for and part of the work. From the end of May a newly commissioned work by Alvaro will inhabit the vast Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain. What will he do? He’s not willing to say yet, though he does observe that “this is the first year that I’m starting to really think about work that is about the future” and he says he is thinking a lot about “the idea of duality.” Alvaro declared not that long ago that “every exhibition is autobio- graphical,” and it’s true that his projects tend to represent his life in many ways, but they are also densely packed with references of both an art-historical and a pop-cultural nature, smashing them together with a Cern-like zeal. Whatever he does at the Tate will surely only amplify his status as one of the world’s most talked-about artists.


Alvaro is 41. He was born in Caracas, Venezuela, on 1 February 1983 to parents from the Caribbean. Popular songs released that month include ‘Little Red Corvette’ by Prince and ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler. Millions of people born in the 19th century were still alive that year; none are now. Sev- eral of Alvaro’s artistic heroes, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louise Bourgeois and Tupac Shakur, were alive then. Alvaro grew up between Grenada and New York City and graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art, London, in 2017.


Alvaro is wearing a grey-green sweatshirt and has a black beanie quite high on his head. He is in his studio in Hackney, London. Shortly after our video call begins, he apologises and leaves to deal with a delivery. I examine the room in his absence. Alvaro’s empty seat has a slightly curved backrest made from dark wood, quite similar in colour to a cabinet and bookshelf elsewhere in the room. In conjunction with the blueness of the carpet, the plain whiteness of the wall and the beadedness of the plastic cord that opens the window blind, it makes this room (which is clearly part of a larger complex) seem less like an artist’s studio than an office in a university or museum.

What it doesn’t resemble is the studio which the artist recreated in a ground-floor room at MoMA PS1 gallery in Queens, New York, for ‘Alvaro Barrington’, his first solo exhibition after graduating. As well as the paintings of hibiscus flowers that would become a signature motif, the show included Alvaro’s work desk and a number of handwrit- ten notes containing various prompts-to-self such as “What is the next obvious but unexpected move?”

One of the books in the room I’m observing is called ‘Jamaica Vibes’. I look it up: a glorious large-format volume by Lisa Lovatt- Smith and Novia McDonald-Whyte, published last year. More books and papers are stacked on the flat surface below the shelf. At the other side of the room is a single kick drum. When Alvaro comes back, I ask him about it and he explains that, having used the drum as the basis for a sculpture, he’s been finding it useful in other ways. “You grow up with the drums as a symbol for so many things, and so I’m just keeping it around me, just helping me figure some stuff out,” he says. Alvaro is thoughtful and doesn’t take much shit. He will often think for a while in response to a question before setting off on a circuitous mono- logue that at some point nails the point from an unexpected direction.


In lieu of an official biography, Alvaro often provides an extensive text, the status of which—Poem? Song? Ready-made?—remains ambiguous. This is an excerpt:

You’re the most insecure person I know and it’s disgusting/
We have to be gentle with each other’s hearts I Like America and America likes me

For the CULTURE/
If you were them, You would be them/ LISTEN/
“You’ve got to give them something special, you got to give them you, what you do, what you represent”
New women, old ways, Gotta Keep a Balance/ I look cooler than I am/
I don’t want my work to be some fucking free zone associations/
Build the margins/

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