Water alphabets


September, 2018

From African flowers to the overpowering shades of Barcelona: the scent of colour and heavenly light in the art of Sergi Barnils.

Surrounded by leaning canvases, brushes and cans of paint, Sergi Barnils gives us a brand new look at the world: he is one of the few painters who still practices the ancient technique of encaustic painting. This involves the creation of a thick layer of wax on the painted canvas, which is then engraved to unveil the underlying colour. The work is then coloured again in a further play on tones and shades, shadows and depths. Barnils expresses his material experimentation and the role of light in a transcendental vision, something that led to his work Agua, originally created in stone and subsequently in glass, in collaboration with Nobili Rubinetterie and Artemidatre.

It is truly an honour to be able to talk to an artist who takes an active part in today’s contemporary art scene. Let’s start from precisely this point: in a world often criticized for being too hurried and superficial what does it mean to be an artist today, and what role can art have in modern society? «The artist is always expected to establish an emotional and at the same time spiritual connection with the public. Vassily Kandinsky gives an excellent expression of this relationship in his work «The spiritual in art»: he invites artists, musicians and writers to generously share this much-needed «spiritual level». Yes, we need to rediscover art as the essential nourishment for the soul, today more than ever».

You were born in Bata, Equatorial Guinea, of Catalan parents, but when you were nine years old you already attended the «Departament d’Art de Viaró Francesc d’Assis Casademont i Pou» in Barcelona: when did you understand that painting and sculpture would be your life? You were only a year and a half old when your family left the former Spanish African colony, yet your art recalls the geometry of the culture of those lands, masterfully balanced with the Catalan style... from the African flowers to the colours of Barcelona... «The first feelings you experience as a child stay with you forever. The shapes, colours and scents of Africa undoubtedly flooded my soul. Then I arrived in Catalonia, a truly special land that, from the exceptional Catalan Romanesque to the present day, has inspired countless artists. This is how African geometries came to combine with Catalan atmospheres in a perfect balance. When at the age of ten my classmates and I would take our paint boxes, brushes and canvases and go out to paint outdoors with professors Casademont and Cabanach, I was filled with happiness. I was leaving behind my boring maths, grammar and geography homework. The scent of the colours, the birds and their songs, the green shade of the poplars, they all gave new life to any child trudging through his school lessons. 1966 was a crucial year: I received a national art award, the first sign that triggered my take-off as an artist».

You’ve had to undergo many struggles to work in this profession, but we can definitely say that it’s been worth it... «After spending a year at university studying law just to please my father, I gave my all to art. They were hard times there’s no doubt about, but you have to nurture the gift you’ve received and not be overwhelmed or discouraged. As a religious person I’m fully convinced that God assigns a different destiny to each one of us. A plan that he designed long before we were born. I believe that one of the greatest sources of harmony for all human beings is just discovering this divine project and putting it to practice. The only thing to do is follow the script».

Life and art are intertwined, just like in a story; whatever happens reflects itself in the creation of the work of art, and external stimuli are certainly necessary. Your art has undergone a turning point, moving from the faithful representation of reality to the experimentation of new forms. While your interest in music related to painting betrays the influence of Kandinsky, what other artists have influenced your development? «The passion I put into learning the piano in adolescence has contributed enormously in giving rhythm and movement to my painting. Of course Kandinsky, Klee, Fishinger and many others had a clear understanding of the relationship between music and painting. «The arts learn from each other, and their goals are sometimes similar», said Vassily Kandinsky himself. There are so many artists who have influenced me and my work! The list would be endless! Let me just name a few: at first sight they might not seem to be connected to each other, but the impact that Giotto, Il Greco, Cézanne, Mirò, and Twombly had on me was truly decisive».

So this was the starting point for your investigation into beauty and happiness, but where exactly do you carry out this research? Can it be regarded as abstract, or do you think that these elements are to be found in the real world? «Since my work gravitates towards the regions of the spirit, it’s no accident that it has evolved towards abstraction. At the same time, all abstract forms start from reality. A highly spiritual abstraction removes any mortal surface and tries to reach the plastic essence of the model. Any artist walking in this direction has a very exciting mission».

This mission leads us back to the concept of the symbolic alphabet, which recurs constantly in all your work. Can you explain the inherent meaning of this style, if indeed it is a style? «Many words could be said here. But I’d just say that they are calligraphies that arise from the deepest spirit. To arrive at this the painter has to behave like a child, a child as defined by Jesus in the Gospel of St. Matthew. Anybody contemplating the work must do the same. I have to admit, however, that I’ve had the chance to perceive these sublime spiritual alphabets even more clearly».

This deep investigation is reflected in the work that you’ve created in collaboration with Nobili and Artemidatre, Agua. What is the relationship of your art live with such an important element in tap fittings? This work makes no use of colour, which on the contrary is something that you always use in your art; instead it plays with transparency and opacity, perceiving white and light in an innovative way... «Well, I need to tell you that I’ve spent years working on the twenty-second chapter of the book of Revelation. Here «the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal» is an essential element. Throughout the chapter it is implied that physical life, spiritual life, the richness of the plant world, complete salvation, everything, everything originates from water. Of course, in Revelation we read about water with a capital W, the water that flows from the throne of God. Water, both physical and spiritual, is truly precious. The work Agua is like a song on the first day of creation. The light is separated from the darkness, the white light is good. Then the waters are arranged above and below the firmament. Light and water condense together in this small sculpture. An essential song to God the creator, to the creation: light and water».

What do you feel while you are creating? «Standing in front of the easel, I feel within me the wonder of living. The white canvas leads me to a place where everything can begin afresh. It’s a completely virgin, unexplored field. Then, I feel the need to raise my eyes and turn to God in gratitude. I’d like to quote a teaching closely related to the theme of water to define my art. I’d like to draw inspiration from the fourteenth chapter of Revelation: «... and give worship to him who made heaven and earth and the sea and the fountains of water».

In your opinion, how can young artists today «untangle» themselves within such a complex art system? Do you have any advice for those wishing to approach this world? What does he have to start with? «Firstly, I’d tell them to make sure that this is their real vocation. Then I’d advise them to learn the profession well. Unfortunately, after the disruption of conceptual art, artists have strayed too far from the discipline of «homo faber» (man the maker). In the Middle Ages this was a man who worked patiently with his hands and his head. He delighted in looking at a well executed work. Talent and inspiration are clearly essential, but hours upon hours spent in a workshop shouldn’t scare us. This is the only way that our work can progress. We should listen to roman poet Virgil when he reminds us that «Labor omnia vincit... Hard work conquers all».

Where do you think art will take you in the future? Tell us something about your projects and aspirations... Your enthusiasm is breathtaking! «I’m very optimistic and I think that, with the increase in new technologies, works of art born of the artist’s heart, mind and hands are more and more needed in modern society. But at the same time I regard it as fundamental for an artist to cultivate his spiritual life. This is the only way in which he can instil the «pure spiritual vibrations» that Vassily Kandinsky so often mentions. The most ambitious project sustaining me right now is a 120 x 120 cm canvas to be created by encaustic painting technique on sackcloth, is waiting for me on the easel. I’ll leave you now, because I have to go for a walk to inspire me for the painting. It’s a landscape full of the colours and gardens of New Jerusalem».