Hanging high on the walls above our heads, paintings of clouds encircle the South London Gallery. There’s weather coming in, growing more and more troubled as we look. Alvaro Barrington has used concrete to paint the clouds, scuffed and trowelled on to gorgeously dyed, high-end Hermès yak wool blankets. As the storm approaches, the support changes to burlap. As much as these paintings might, at a stretch, look back to JMW Turner or to Constable’s cloud studies, abstract expressionism and informalism are in there, too. It is action painting without the angst, unless, that is, you worry about covering luxury blankets with builder’s concrete. This collision of materials, the one despoiling the other, is part of the point of these intemperate paintings, and one of the several ways in which the artist creates his debased and impure art, which attempts to reflect the textures, complexities and inequalities of the modern world.
Born in 1983 in Venezuela to Grenadian and Haitian migrant workers, Barrington grew up in Grenada and Brooklyn. He studied painting in New York and then at the Slade in London, where he currently lives. You never know what he’s going to do or where his art will go next. Artists often used to complain about being “skied” by whoever hung their pictures so far up the wall you couldn’t get a proper view, but clouds are meant to be seen from afar; otherwise, you’re in the fog.
Barrington’s show is less an exhibition of discrete individual works as an installation masquerading as an old-fashioned academy or salon hang. It is a good way of dealing with the SLG’s tall single space, which was completed in 1891, when such curatorial arrangements were common. Barrington has adapted the manners of the 19th-century picture gallery to revel in the complexities of the present and an imagined near-future.
‘You look at his paintings, and they look at you.’ Photograph: Andy Stagg
Spider the Pig, Pig the Spider takes as one of its starting points the inequalities of north and south, exacerbated by climate emergency, globalisation and industrialisation. Beneath the clouds, the paintings and drawings that jostle for attention at a more human eye level are presented in cumbersome concrete, aluminium and shiny steel frames. As much architectural devices as frames, redolent of brutalism and corporate high-sheen decor, they give way, on the opposite long wall, to frames of brightly coloured painted wooden slats and corrugated metal. These are meant to remind us of the ad hoc construction work of a poorer south, of cheap building materials and the favella. I’m reminded of Brazilian Tropicália, redone as gaudy poverty chic. Where do the frames end and the paintings begin? They’re all of a piece. Barrington intersperses these cumbersome objects with roughly painted banana leaves.
All of which seems a big step to Peppa Pig and Louise Bourgeois’ gigantic sculpted spider, both of whom are referenced in Barrington’s paintings. These creatures evidence themselves in the pink limbs, cartoonish fingers and trotters, and hairy, grey and black spidery appendages that cross their surfaces. Infant fantasy meets adult darkness, you might say, except there’s no darkness more chilling than that of childhood.
The entire experience is like a gigantic, immersive video game with multiple levels, wormholes, diversions and escape hatches
Except it isn’t really Peppa and it isn’t exactly Bourgeois’ Maman either who populate Barrington’s fractious, unruly works. Somehow George Orwell’s Napoleon, the porcine dictator in Animal Farm, and Anansi the Spider from the west African folk tale are in there, too. I worry about the pig and the spider. Are they an item? And then there are the 1980s songs, the riffs on other artists and the autobiographical details that litter Barrington’s multilayered and, at times, confusing art; it has taken me days to get to grips with it.
It is all enough to make you start climbing the walls, which are themselves painted in bands and blocks of flat colour, a kind of colour-coded index of weather and light, pollution sunsets, nightfalls and dawns and grey afternoons.
The entire experience is like a gigantic, immersive video game with multiple levels, wormholes, diversions and escape hatches. It is hard to know where you are. This sense of being unmoored and caught between worlds is signal to the contradictions and contrasts of Barrington’s own peripatetic life.
In one work, a game map from Nintendo’s Super Mario World provides a background, much like a fragment of ancient cartography. Trotters and spider legs are sprayed and smeared on the under-surfaces of his glazed paintings, abstracted into compound brushstrokes, casting shadows on the layers beneath, which themselves reiterate or echo the same forms in accents of heavily brushed colour. These often bring to mind the loose patches and licks of other painters. You can easily lose yourself in these box-like agglomerations, which also include reproductions of old monochrome photos of city tenements and sidewalks with passersby, a towering Brooklyn Bridge and other city views printed on acetate and sandwiched within their multiple layers. I begin to see things that aren’t there or are merely glimmering reflections of the works that hang on the opposite wall. Behind the imagery there are areas of canvas sutured and sewn with brightly coloured yarn – a reference, perhaps, to a spider’s web.
Peripatetic … Barrington was born in Venezuela, and lived in Grenada and New York before moving to London
Sometimes works by other artists are attached to the surface – a plain outline drawing of a man in his underpants, Casting Sexy Twinky Guy, from a series of gay porn drawings by Dutch artist Dorus Tossijn, who was at the Slade with Barrington, and who has also provided a small oil painting of Rihanna wearing a Giambattista Valli frock. Then there are the lines “I bless the rains down in Africa” from the hideous 1982 song Africa, by soft rock band Toto (inexplicably, the official video of the song has had more than 694m YouTube views), repeated over the surface of one painting, and lyrics from Rick James’s 1981 Ghetto Life printed across another.
Bristling with visual references and optical intrigue, low culture jokes and high-end art references, Barrington conflates the personal, the political, social issues and the idiosyncratic. Sometimes you have to get up close, squint and peer through the glazed surfaces to see the world within. The more I pick up on the details, the more lost I am. Look, there’s a helicopter. And here some Ellsworth Kelly plant drawings, redrawn by Barrington and with the letters ICU repeated over them. The initials standing both for Intensive Care Unit and the text message abbreviation for “I see you”. You look at his paintings, and they look at you.
Proceeding by intuition and calculation, Barrington plays the painting game at several simultaneous levels. People still talk about post-internet art, but all art is post-internet now. Although resolutely handmade, Barrington’s paintings belong to a world that is totally entangled with both the real and the virtual. His rafts of references and materials are heir to Robert Rauschenberg’s commodious approach, which predicted much of our interconnected world, without having the net to fall back on. It is impossible to say that Barrington is one of a generation ushering in a new species of painting, but he might be, even if it’s somewhere between a pig and a spider.