Raise the Barr

Apr 21, 2004 at 12:00 am

I wake in the night lying on messed sheets in a dank, dark room. A light shines from a corner lamp. I grab for a martini and a long cigarette holder, located conveniently nearby on a nightstand, and light up.

I look down. Wow, my slumber has been good to me. My waist is about 6 inches around, my legs are the best you could get in gams — lithe and long with a little meat in just the right places. My breasts are round bullets. I’m wearing a metallic bikini and it looks awesome. I could get used to this.

The room is depressing but well decorated. There’s an Eero Saarinen Tulip Chair knockoff against the wall, under a groovy ’60s design painting.

Next to me lies a thick, hairy monster with fangs, a chain around his neck. Fortunately, he’s passed out, face down. I look out the window. Half-naked women in pasties and arm gloves fly cartoonish spaceships, smoking cigarettes in holders. Monkeys and little creatures with big, round eyes are helping out, pointing the way, escorting. Huge cartoon doll-heads bobble here and there. Buildings are hooked up to satellites and cartoon televisions.

The place looks bombed out. Factory stacks dot the landscape, blowing smoke into the sky — an orange, green and purple horizon dotted with dark clouds.

Perched on a building is King Ghidorah, wreaking havoc. The three-headed dragon seems to be angry because Bad Betty (alter ego of the “Flintstones” character) and Judy Jetrash (inspired by the “Jetsons” character) dumped him for cigarettes, sex and swank. In fact, Bad Betty’s ass is hanging out of her miniskirt. She looks like a naughty cartoon.

Across the street is a building containing all sorts of things to look at. A floozie hangs out a window, her pubic hair showing, a flaming bed behind her. In another window a fairy woman is chained to the ceiling. In yet another a sad girl plays guitar. A weeping gargoyle sits on a sill. Floating and perched about are clown faces, grinning eerily, aliens, spaceships, hipsters driving hot-rod cars, Japanese billboards, little innocent bugs watching it all and lots of really sexy, scantily-clad women.

I’ve got to get out of here before the freak wakes up. I walk down the street; it’s Michigan Avenue. I head into a titty bar, the only place with lights on. Some girls look a lot like me, white, but some are black with Afros, Hispanic or Asian. All are angelically beautiful. The men are big and hulking and dark; some look like death personified.

The apocalypse is definitely approaching, I can feel it, but things are fairly calm in this neck of the woods, and, relatively speaking, pretty orderly.

I wonder where I am. Is it Detroit or am I trapped in a hallucinogenic world of Hanna-Barbera’s dark side, a pulp comic cartoon horror dystopia come alive?

Is it 1960, or 3060?

And then I realize: I’m in Glenn Barr’s world.

It’s a mighty interesting place to be.

The hand leads the way

You might know Barr from the drawings he did for that sick and genius little Nickelodeon cartoon, “The Ren & Stimpy Show.” He did backgrounds, those crazy boulders, the bulging and bloodshot eyes, the bad teeth. Or, you might recognize his work from DC and Marvel comic book covers and illustrations, or from covers and illustrations in Creem magazine, Fun Magazine and Orbit in Detroit, or from the advertisements with the sexy “Fuk” girls he did for Dave’s Comics in Royal Oak, or for the album covers he drew for everyone from the Detroit Cobras to California’s Funkydoobiest.

Glenn Barr has been around. At 45, he’s considered among America’s so-called “lowbrow art” royalty, if there is such a thing, selling paintings on the East and West coasts for thousands of dollars a pop.

He just got back from Los Angeles, where Billy Shire (the so-called Peggy Guggenheim of lowbrow art) and his La Luz de Jesus Gallery opened Barr’s solo show; he’s sold seven of 15 paintings, the larger works fetching $5,000 to $8,000 apiece.

“I’ve had solo shows there before,” says Barr of La Luz de Jesus, “but they weren’t packed.” This opening, he says, “was a packed house.”

Michelle Chenelle, the gallery’s director, says buyers flew in to view Barr’s work in the current show, and people from all over the country called and e-mailed to see what was available.

When Barr started showing in Los Angeles, in 2000, “L.A. was ready for my kind of artwork,” he says. “It’s kind of industrial and dark visually. … The art in L.A. was light and colorful and California. They were ready for something different.”

His work is turning heads all over, selling well in New York, Minneapolis and Indiana, Australia and Japan, he says. He shows often at Tin Man Alley Gallery in Philadelphia, which is moving to Brooklyn to become the Jonathan LeVine Gallery.

Earlier this year, a Colorado printer named Brad Keech put out 50 special-edition silkscreen sets of Barr’s drawings, and is selling a couple a month for $950 apiece. Keech chooses artists he likes and makes prints with his 19th-century pressure-printing press on special paper using special ink. A $95 set of six prints on less expensive paper is already out. Late last year, the La Luz de Jesus and Last Gasp galleries put out a book of Barr’s work; its first printing of 3,000 copies sold out, and the book is going into second printing. Around the same time, Tin Man Alley put out a book of Barr’s sketches.

Prints of his paintings are big sellers too. Chenelle says La Luz sells more of Barr’s prints than anyone else’s, except the artist Shag, with at least 50 sales a year.

Blue-chip galleries frown on artists who do prints, and often require featured painters to sign contracts agreeing not to show at competing galleries, and not to make prints, as they can devalue the original works. For this reason, Barr says, he remains his own boss.

“I represent myself, and I can show anywhere I like,” he says.

A lot of his fans are young and can’t afford original paintings, which is why Barr says he started a Web site last year, to make more affordable prints and his art books available.

“I want it accessible to everyone,” he says. “I’m not a purist.”

The Web traffic got so busy he recently hired an assistant to help deal with it.

“I couldn’t keep up with it. I was freaking out,” says Barr. “The orders started pouring in. It was cutting into my creative side … the business side was taking over.”

Battle of categories

A lowbrow, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is a person with little taste or intellectual interest. Of course, that’s not what people meant when they appropriated the word for a genre of art. In fact, the king of lowbrow art himself, Robert Williams, is credited with applying the term.

The lowbrow art world is, generally speaking, made up of counterculture artists, of comic and cartoon artists, of tattoo and pin-up artists, of artists who paint the erotic and the profane in a pop sort of way. Though many artists in general might consider themselves in this category, there’s a look, a feel that makes an artist lowbrow.

“I’ve always been a follower of the counterculture,” says Barr. “All the music I liked was never played on the radio. I took that culture into my paintings.”

While the so-called lowbrow art world embraces Barr, he says he doesn’t necessarily think his work fits the label. He prefers another category: pop surrealism.

Barr has described his work as formalist, with abstract themes in a surrealist environment. His paintings illustrate a mastery of the use of lighting for dramatic effect, and a keen eye for color and spatial composition.

“I like the painting to look like a painting,” he explains. “Who wants it to look real? What’s the point? Take a picture.”

The guy can really draw, and his works have a distinctive look. When you walk into a gallery or flip through art books, it’s easy to pick out a Glenn Barr.

Barr knock-offs abound. This year’s Dirty Show at Tangent Gallery featured several works by obvious Barr fans.

A renderer of modern urban life (like Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec and their famous European turn-of-the-century counterparts), Barr paints what he sees in Detroit nightlife, prostitutes on the streets, topless dancers in clubs, bar bouncers, the car culture. But he adds a twist of fantasy, culled from his deep affection for ’50s and ’60s cartoons, iconography, kitsch, advertisements and film, especially silent films, sci-fi and horror.

His paintings contain a consistent element of humor, of optimism. They’re dark, but they’re not dreary, and some are pure fun.

“I like to mix things up,” says Barr. “At two opposite ends I’ll have the devil and angel living in the same space. I like that, the contrast of alluring imagery and repulsion. You are lured but it’s dangerous.”

Then there’s the aspect of the voyeur looking for a narrative in “an innocent moment in time. It tells a story but doesn’t tell you anything. It’s open-ended narration,” he says of his paintings.

His figures are often “looking at something you can’t see,” he explains.

The works detailing strip clubs and bar life illustrate “my take on men and women,” he says. The men are often monsters or big thuggish guys, whereas the women are almost always beautiful, if not overtly fetishized, with unrealistic hourglass figures. He says women to him are images of beauty that are important elements in his bleak landscapes.

“It’s more about the men than the women,” he says.

He’ll often light the background and have a darker foreground, or light a random spot on the floor.

“Everything is ambiguous. You have to find the point of interest.

“There’s so much going on in each one [painting], it would be impossible to explain.”

Recently, Barr’s work has moved toward pure abstraction with a surrealist touch. Gravity, composition and color are the main concerns.

Like surrealists before him, Barr’s got social issues on his mind when he paints. For a while, fighting between Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East really discouraged him, and cast a pall on his works, he says.

“I was so angry about religion,” says Barr. “I’ve tried to do my definitive war painting or anti-religion painting. But I realized leaving politics out of painting is best for me.”

Barr draws his works with pencil before he paints them with acrylics on Masonite and panel boards. He says one of his greatest challenges is to infuse his paintings with the “same energy” as the drawings. There’s always something lost, he says, in the process; it’s a dilemma many artists speak of.

“I used to sit at a desk and paint,” he says, “but it became noodling, and I don’t want to noodle. I always say, anybody can render the heck out of something. But to render with an energy that’s captivating is very difficult to do. So I had to stand up, to use my whole arm, because otherwise, I was noodling.”

Aaron Timlin of Detroit Artists Market frowns on the lowbrow definition in general, and its use to describe Barr.

“I think the whole lowbrow, outsider art thing is a gimmick in a way,” to bring attention to small guys and outsiders, Timlin says. “Some people use that to their advantage. He [Barr] has something to say. It’s important and it’s good.”

And just as mainstream fine art galleries might scoff at the lowbrow genre, so does lowbrow flip its nose at the alternative.

“When I go to a museum or gallery, and I see lines of paint on a canvas, I could never, even as a little child, get behind the concept that this is legitimate,” says La Luz’s Chenelle. “What I like, people consider it lowbrow, only because it’s not what highly sophisticated people are saying is art.”

However you might define it, Chenelle says, people respond to Barr’s work.

“He really straddles that world of fine art and underground art,” Chenelle says. “His work is moody or joyous. There’s always something happening. His women are sexy or scary at the same time, or innocent.”

Destined for fame?

It’s not easy to figure out how a Livonia high school kid who was into music and comics ended up doing cartoon work for “The Ren & Stimpy Show” and becoming a national lowbrow art star. While many artists will expound for hours on every detail of every project they’ve ever done and all the amazing people they’ve worked with, getting Barr to explain his résumé is like pulling teeth. He likes to talk about what he’s doing now.

During a recent visit to his workspace, in Brooklyn Building, an artists’ haven located just off Michigan Avenue and the Lodge, Barr gets excited about a box from Japan that’s just arrived.

“Let’s open it right now,” he says, his big blue eyes sparkling.

He pulls out a model of a cat doll he will paint for a series of toys.

“This is awesome,” he says. “I love new projects. You get free toys out of it.”

His loft is filled to the ceiling with the things that inspire him: shelves of classic dolls, drawings of Felix the Cat, prints and pulp illustrations, such as a ’60s flat print of a saucer-eyed kitten. Dividing the room is a shelf that contains a considerable art book library. He says he’s got a couple hundred videos of classic horror movies, silent films and ’50s and ’60s commercials at home, stuff he got while it was roaming in the black market, before you could buy anything on Amazon.com.

Barr’s into everything camp, and always has been. He explains that music was his thing for a “long time” before he got into art. In his 20s, his folks moved to Southfield and he moved to Detroit to live with a bunch of guys in his punk band he wouldn’t name. “It doesn’t matter,” he says.

He was into drawing and would do comic shows, and got gigs with DC Comics and Marvel. He did illustrations and covers for Film Threat magazine.

A friend introduced him to Gary Grimshaw “in a dark bar one day,” says Barr, and Grimshaw asked him to work for Creem magazine.

“I never looked back,” says Barr.

Barr attended the College for Creative Studies then got a job in advertising. He stayed in the business world for about 30 months. “I hated it,” he says.

In 1991, an acquaintance called Barr and asked if he wanted to come to Los Angeles to work on the “The Ren & Stimpy Show.”

“And I said yes,” says Barr with a wry smile.

The guy had seen Barr’s work at a comic show and remembered it, Barr says.

By the late 1990s, Barr was doing covers for DC Comics’ Factoid books, done in comic style such as 1998’s The Big Book of Bad.

“That’s how I got my chops with drawing,” he says.

He was trying to get accepted as an editorial illustrator, he says, but really, he was a “frustrated pulp magazine painter.” “I just wanted to paint pulp book covers … Satan’s Daughter, The Neon Jungle, The Man from Orgie. …”

He dreamed of illustrating graphic novels. But when he got the chance, he didn’t like it, he says.

Around 1996, painting took over.

“I always thought my art was something you were supposed to hold in your hands,” he says.

Comics and pulp were his passion. His friends had to cajole him, “Why don’t you put it on the wall?”

His first show was at the now-defunct Cement Space gallery in Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood.

“That was the catalyst. The response was tremendous.”

Yet sales were slow and rewards minimal until he showed outside of Detroit, he says. Seattle was his first out-of-town venue. In 2000, Billy Shire of La Luz called. Barr took out 24 paintings and several sold for $1,500 to $3,000, Barr says.

While he never had a representative or agent for his paintings, he credits Rick Manore with getting his name out.

“The unsung hero of Detroit is Rick Manore,” says Barr.

In 1992, Manore opened CPOP gallery in Royal Oak. Barr was his second show, after Manore brought Robert Williams, who now demands more than $10,000 a painting and is highly celebrated in the art world, as CPOP’s first show.

“Quite amazing,” says Barr.

Barr’s CPOP show consisted basically of framed Orbit covers, and he says he was surprised that the works sold.

Afterward, Manore sent images of Barr’s work to Juxtapoz Magazine, a West Coast venture that champions lowbrow art. Juxtapoz did a two-page spread on Barr.

“I think Manore deserves all the credit,” says Barr. “He is the one that created the Midwest vibe. He sold rock posters at record conventions and saw the interest in pop iconography of Robert Williams and others. He stepped up, got the storefront, and started CPOP. There was nothing like that anywhere around here.”

With people clamoring for his work, Barr’s aw-shucks, I-was-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time attitude is remarkable. He’s very humble.

Chenelle says she knew of Barr for years because she collected DC Comics’ The Big Book of … series, and Barr’s self-published comics, called Heep. He didn’t even mention Heep in discussing his background; there’s no telling what else he left out.

I ask him if he’s always made good money as a working artist. “I’m sure I wasn’t working all the time, because I remember being hungry,” he says. He often ate a café near CCS with $1.50 all-you-can-eat hot dogs and beer. “I was living off hot dogs,” he says. “Pretty good.”

Detroit works for Barr and his family, he says. His wife, Nancy Barr, is a curator at the Detroit Institute of Art, and they live with their 3-year-old daughter, Avalon, in Ferndale.

If he were richer, he’d move to Manhattan in a heartbeat, he says. But for now, living in Detroit is good. He can pay his bills with sales of his paintings, prints, books and special projects, including about five commissions a year. At Detroit’s CPOP Gallery, his paintings sell for about half as much as they do outside Michigan.

“I think I saturated the market here,” says Barr. “It’s hard to sell in painting in town.”

But that’s OK, he says.

“I can live comfortably with the sales from out of town,” he says. “I don’t think I’d be able to live in California. I’d have to take up animation or something.”

And who knows how the change would affect him. As with many Detroit artists, the city is his muse.

“I’m not really inspired by the landscape of California,” he says. “My work is inspired by my surroundings.”


Barr's books, prints and other stuff are available at his Web site, www.glbarr.com. To see sets of pressure-printed drawings, go to www.pressureprinting.com.

Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]