Music from concrete: An interview with Alvaro Barrington
Alvaro Barrington is a painter with deep interest in place, material, and music. Compressed into his canvases are unexpected additions to paint, including concrete which reminds him of the streets of New York, as well as metaphors from music. He speaks to Will Jennings about his various inspirations and outputs.

                Did you hear about the rose that grew
                from a crack in the concrete?
                Proving nature’s law is wrong it
                learned to walk without having feet.
                Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams
                it learned to breathe fresh air.
                Long live the rose that grew from concrete
                when no one else ever cared.
                Tupac Shakur

Tupac’s lyrics resonate with artist Alvaro Barrington’s work, in both metaphor and material. A painter who has shot up in importance in the artworld in the five years since graduating from London’s Slade School of Fine Art. Barrington had earlier studied at Hunter College, New York, a city he knows deeply from childhood, growing up between Brooklyn and the Caribbean. Born in Venuzuala to Grenadian and Haitian migrant workers, he is an artist who has a deep understanding to place, and specificities within place.

Conceptually, his work explores abstraction, adding a plethora of unexpected materials into his canvases, adding depth to broad-brush paintings using burlap fabric, yarn, cardboard, and – as mentioned by Tupac – concrete. There are parallels with how Anselm Kiefer buries material and meaning into his compositions, an artist Barrington was inspired by earlier in his career.

“If I was gonna bring a non-museum-going person to see what modern art is… if they go ‘oh, I don't get what contemporary art is,’ I would say ‘man, let's go look at some Kiefers.’ Because there's just something about what his painting can do, whether it's make you aware of your own body, using scale -  you just see it and you feel it. if you want people to understand contemporary art, he is the easiest gateway drug.”


But it is not only the mixed-media embedded within Barrington’s compositions, but also a rich interest in listening – whether that be the lyrics of Tupac Shakur and 90’s hip-hop, or freewheeling jazz from the Harlem renaissance.

“You know it's always special for me to walk into a place and hear the music that came from this place. I hadn't been in the Caribbean since maybe early 2000s, and I was sitting on the beach in Jamaica and there was just the first time that I felt a texture in the air that I that I thought ‘Oh, this is why reggae came from here’. It was unbelievable, there was just a texture that I'd never really thought I could have that sensitivity to feel. But I felt it, and then it was like, ‘oh yeah, this is why reggae came from here, it couldn't have been developed anywhere else’. You know reggae, soca, music of the Caribbean, Calypso, there's just a way that the sound is in the air and in the soil. It's kind of interesting, because when I go to Paris there’s a kind of jazz of Josephine Baker and all of that, immediately I'm like ‘oh yeah, this is it’. It’s in the streets, it was held somehow.”

For his work in recent Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art exhibition Testament, which invited artists to reconsider monuments for the current age, Barrington showed Untitled pac rose series, the wall-text limited to the Tupac quote above. The concrete in the text is also sprawled across the canvas, a material which references the streets. By presenting the street, the mundane cement surface of urbanity, as monument, he invites us to reconsider the landscapes from which ideas and people can emerge.
“Tupac kind of looked at it from two angles, he looked at it first from praising the rose from growing from the concrete, that in this crack it was able to find the light and then grow and become itself, and so it really talking about like then possibility of choosing to grow through very severe conditions. … Then the other way he looked at it was about how we treat people, how we look at them. He said in the poem that if you if you saw rose that grew through the cracks in the floor even it was battered and bruised that you would still be in admiration of it.”


Music and material act as metaphor for Barrington, stating that “metaphor has become an easy shorthand to try to get to this space of creative innovation,” but it’s more than that too. Just as he felt the connectedness of Caribbean music to the place it was from, he is invested in how art fits into the equation – just as he fused New York’s pavement with Tupac’s music and with his artwork.

“Matisse is a great reference point for me…  you know people often say that he was trying to free colour in modern art, so when you're looking at modernism a lot of people in Western culture kind of turn to Matisse and go ‘oh yeah, he's the reason that artists can then just find colour and use it for material – a red next to a blue, or whatever.’ But Matisse was really kind of chasing jazz, and jazz was probably the most important reference point for him in terms of how he understands how to make art. And, and you could see that he was really on his way to this point where he's making these artworks that feel like jazz at the same time that Paris is finding how to lock its cultural identity in. I think one of the things that I'm really interested in is to find what an aesthetic representation of hip hop feels like. I think probably Basquiat has been the biggest innovator in that field in terms of painting, but after that it's just everybody references Basquiat, including me. … My work try to say ‘hey how do I push myself into it?’ You know Matisse didn't hit that jazz moment until well, well into his career, 40 years almost. He was really trying to find it, you see him in the teens, and 20s, and the 30s, he's really searching for it, but once he hit the cutouts it was like ‘oh, man, he’s got it! It's on!.”


Barrington’s work is about that search, how creativity doesn’t provide a full stop so much as ellipses, and about the making – whether alone in the studio or collaboratively in numerous realms – of cultural ellipses.

“I think my art is a social practice,” Barrington states, and describes his studio being wherever he ends up with friends, talking over coffee, or at dinner. That’s one kind of studio, perhaps for collaborative thinking, but he has a studio for making too, and in his 2017 exhibition at MOMA PS1, he showed it as a curated set-piece alongside his paintings. His London studio had been dismantled ahead of his move to New York, and it simply detoured into the gallery for a short period.

It wasn’t an active studio, so much as situating the place of making within finished works. His next studio, however, may have more of a performative aspect. “I'm very excited about what about how we inhabit space. My new studio, David Adjaye is designing it, and it's going to be a public space” Barrington says, opening up the possibility of a new kind of cultural environment pulling in listening, making, showing, and being.

Adjaye isn’t the only architect Barrington collaborates with. The artist is becoming a regular fixture at London’s Notting Hill Carnival, his canvases ordaining floats since 2019, and for this year’s carnival Barrington is working with architect Sumayya Vally on the design of a stage which will stand in front of Notting Hill Tabernacle. The project grew from Sound System Sundays at the same venue, host of a fragment of Vally’s 2021 Serpentine Pavilion, and backdrop to sound systems Vally co-selected with Barrington.

“With Notting Hill Carnival we have started a yearly thing with architects - this year it’s Sumayya Vally. She's designing not only a float but a stage, right in front of The Tabernacle. That was always part of the agenda, saying, ‘how do we get more disciplines into the practice?’ So this year she's designing one of the most moving, poignant [designs]. She showed us her sketch of it, and this is special you know.”


Collaboration across forms and listening remain key to Barrington’s approach. How through a deep listening and awareness, new forms of reciprocity and collaboration could be formed.

“I think a lot a lot, lot of people are doing right now, is trying to find what that moral compass looks like. What is this collective moral compass that is going to bring us together in a way that makes us feel seen, makes us feel heard, feel understood? A moral compass that is really about listening, you know? I think some of what has made Twitter and Instagram and all of those things a bit more seductive for people is because it gave them a sort of voice in a in this new direction, and this new moral compass that we're looking for. I just feel like we're on the cusp of something really amazing with innovations, ideas, and thinking, and being. You know we're coming up against an old guard – I was talking to some friends in their seventies, and they were like oh ‘blah blah blah, that sounds like that sounds like communism to me’, and I was like ‘man, you have scars that this generation do not have, we don't have scars of Communism. This generation is not going to hold onto your scars.’”

Alvaro Barrington (b. 1983 Caracas, Venezuela) was born to Grenadian and Haitian parents and raised between the Caribbean and New York, Barrington’s practice explores interconnected histories of cultural production. His series Garvey examines the cultural exchanges of early 20th century London and the Harlem Renaissance – both sites of large-scale migration from the Caribbean at the height of Modernism – and their ongoing influence on artistic output and notions of self-hood, sexuality, the soul, identity, nurture, nationality, punishment and death. Considering himself primarily a painter, Barrington’s multimedia approach to image-making employs burlap, textiles, postcards and clothing, exploring how materials themselves can function as visual tools while referencing their personal, political and commercial histories.

Will Jennings is a London based writer, visual artist, and educator interested in cities, architecture, and culture. He has written for the RIBA Journal, the Journal of Civic Architecture, Quietus, The Wire, the Guardian, and Icon. He teaches history and theory at UCL Bartlett and Greenwich University, and is director of UK cultural charity Hypha


fig.i Alvaro Barrington’s work in Mixing It Up: Painting Today, at the Hayward Gallery, London, 2021. Photograph  © Hayward Gallery & Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.
fig.ii Untitled pac rose series, by Alvaro Barrington in Testament, at Goldsmiths Centre for the Creative Arts, 2022. Photograph © Goldsmiths CCA
fig.iii Alvaro Barrington’s exhibition Spider the pig, pig the spider, at the South London Gallery, London, 2021. Photograph © Andy Stagg
fig.ii The Bather Rio/Ro/St, by Alvaro Barrington, 2021, exhibited in his exhibition You don't do it for the man, men never notice. You just do it for yourself, you’re the fucking coldest, at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris Marrais, 2021. Photograph  © Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.

publication date
04 April 2022

David Adjaye, Alvaro Barrington, Sadie Coles, Caribbean, Concrete, Counterspace, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Jamaica, Jazz, Matisse, Music, New York, Notting Hill Carnival, Paris, Painting, Tupac Shakur, Sumayya Vally


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