The Beatles, Otaku, Art and the Sacred: the Toby Barnes Interview

Posted November 05 2014

Artist Toby Barnes settled into Amherst a few years ago and will be part of our LOOK II local group show opening Friday, July 13th.  Toby was kind enough to agree to an email and in person interview. We begin with a discussion about Toby’s painting, The Sidekick Lounge (pictured with the photograph of The Beatles that inspired it).

FOE: Toby, we are seriously crushing on your painting The Sidekick Lounge.  Can you tell us what inspired you to paint it?

TB: The picture has an iconic composition and I wanted to try to capture that.  At the time, I went and saw Elizabeth Peyton’s show and thought that she was also tapping into the same vibe, since she’s not just painting anyone but attention grabbing people.  So this all was a springboard for the painting. What also motivated this painting was the backlash against superheroes at the time.  Basically, comic book and graphic novelists were creating “heroes” who were more like Otakus.  That’s why my painting is The Sidekick Lounge.  I also wanted it to be funny.  I thought this would be more human and realistic than a perfect hero, with a perfect body.  I was also reacting to the impulse to depict everything as perfect (you especially see this with CGI in movies).  

FOE: You mention Otaku, for those unfamiliar with the word, it refers to Japanese nerd/geek culture.  We’re big fans and many of the artists and customers we talk to are fans as well.  Can you tell us how you first became aware of Otaku?

TB: Yes, I’ve been a huge fan since I was a child.  I traveled to Asia many times when I was little on our way to visit family in Thailand (I’m half Thai).  In Asia, all the cartoons and comics were imported from Japan. I rediscovered my childhood love of manga and anime after graduate school (MFA in Painting from the University of Michigan).  So there, instead of painting things that I thought were more recognized as cool, I decided to go back to this first love and paint in the manga style that I loved from my childhood.  And when I did that, I met an artist named Tim Evans, who was organizing artists that also were influenced by Japanese culture.  It’s through him that I became more aware of myself as an Otaku.  

FOE: Your influences for TSL beautifully depict the images and ideas that are important to you.  What can you tell us about your use of color in this painting?

TB: I think neon lends itself to a color palette that sets itself apart from conventional painting.  It’s a kitchy way to make something stand out as more than just a regular painting.  Neon is like the other glitter.  

FOE: And a question about your technique.  Your paintings are very precise, with barely a visible brush stroke.  Why and how did you find yourself painting in this style?

TB: I think a person that has been painting for a while, has more patience, and addresses surface better.  I think of my paintings as signs, like billboards.  That’s why I choose eye grabbing colors.  My technique is very intentional that’s why it’s all clean lines, bold colors, and it’s built up to this because I don’t want any unintentional distractions surrounding my images.  I really value precision.  

FOE: We are so happy to be working with you on our first, and your first giclee print release.  Are you happy with the final print?

TB: Yes.  I like that giclee prints are like my paintings: flat and even.  I once read that Picasso may have been influenced (his colors and imagery) by the phenomenon of mass reproductions of painting.  Once you are aware that your painting may be reproduced, you’re always therefore making things easier to translate.  The process brought me back to a time when I turned to silk screening to rethink my use of color. Printmaking slows down the process and allows you to think of all the colors that will be used, which I think is an important exercise.  

FOE: We were happy to finally work with Rob Caswell of Evolv Fine Art Printing in Easthampton.  We have seen his work and were impressed with the quality. This is the first time you have had one of your paintings reproduced as a print. Were you happy with the process?

TB: Yes, very happy.  For artists I think sometimes it’s hard to work with other people on your material and they were great to work with.  I also think the prints came out very handsome.  I’m amazed at what they were able to reproduce!  

FOE: The Sidekick Lounge giclee print will be released in a signed, numbered edition of 30 on Friday July 13th for the opening of our LOOK II local group show. Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you a couple questions about being an artist in these modern times.  I thoroughly enjoyed our meandering art conversation over beer.  And as new gallery owners, we are always discussing art, aesthetics and how our customers relate to the art. I had asked you if you felt it was necessary for someone to understand an artists’ motivation or intention to appreciate the work.

TB: Yes and no.  There are layers, both figuratively and literally to a work of art.  If someone spends enough time with it, it’s likely they will discover meaning.  

FOE: Taking time to search for meaning, can be challenging in these hectic and demanding times.  How do you find time for reflection in your life?

TB: Lately, it's more in my down time, when I spend time away from my gadgets (iPhone, email etc.).  Back when I lived in NYC, this happened during my commute on the subway.  Now that I live here, it's my back yard and spending time with my child.  I try to make it part of my day taking time to go back to basics, tune things out and just be in the moment.  

FOE: Can you sum up your philosophy?

TB: I try to live with intention and integrity while also understanding that chance is always involved.  


Thank you, Toby, for your beautiful work and thoughtful conversation.  It was a pleasure.