Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Barnaby Furnas by Shelby Horton

Barnaby Furnas is an American artist who was born in Philadelphia in 1973. Raised in a mostly white Quaker community in an otherwise all-black neighborhood, Furnas turned to graffiti art to channel suppressed violence and fear during his adolescence. He went on to study fine arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York and then Columbia University, receiving his MFA in 2000. Furnas picked up watercolor painting, embracing the limitations on control it imposed, and focused his work throughout the next decade on apocalyptic-type events and on savior and Antichrist figures.

The paintings for which he was initially best known concerned the American Civil War, an event he was constantly reminded of growing up in urban Philadelphia, surrounded by monuments and places dedicated to that history. Additionally, the Civil War gave him a way to explore what he really wanted to do, which was to "make a painting where the making of the painting destroys the story the painting is trying to tell” and to not really make a drawing, but rather use the drawing to have an experience.

Antietam, 2007
Painting war got Furnas to the point where he could destroy the story, and then, abstraction (in the form of bloodletting) could begin to take over. He could use the abstraction to capture movement and speed in his aim to create “blockbuster paintings” which subjected flying objects (such as bullets cutting across the plane in streaks of blood) to stillness.

Furnas was interested in the simultaneity of the experiences he created with his painting, and he loved exploring the idea of representing more than one moment within a single image. He eagerly experimented with an effect that he noticed about the appearance of moving objects while he was on LSD. Instead of painting just one outcome, he envisioned time branching out in multiple ways, and then painted the multiple “consequences of everything moving.” Also, employing “video game time,” objects leaving one side of the canvas could enter the opposite side at the same time, furthering this effect of multiple, simultaneous experiences within a single painting.

Duel (July 4th), 2004
Suicide in 3 Parts, 2002
In addition to the ultra-violence and temporal quality of Furnas’s paintings, his paintings of biblical events, including the Great Flood, and of the biblical figure, Jesus Christ, also captured my attention. I found it intriguing that red was the prevalent color in the Flood paintings (a non-bloody event), while the first painting I came across of Christ wearing his crown of thorns (a bloody event) was uncharacteristically absent of any red. Furnas considers red pigment to be more “aggressive” than other pigments in the way it spreads in watercolor painting, so he possibly used red to emphasize the turbulence of the floodwaters. Painting Christ covered in rays of light and butterflies, as opposed to blood (expected because of the history), speaks to Furnas’s stance that all subjects including “sacred” ones are open to interpretation.
Untitled (Flood), 2007
Christ, 2006
Furnas’s series of rock concert paintings were also particularly interesting to me. When music was the only company he had at a point in his life, he would paint the band playing the music he was listening to at the time. Personally, a rock concert is a highly desirable experience, and Furnas’s concert paintings remind me the most about his idea of creating paintings based on "experiences he feels like having."
Rock Concert (Slayer), 2007


Momim, S.M., & Dunham, C. (2009). Barnaby Furnas. New York, NY: Abrams.

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