In an alternate world, this exhibition of barbershop paintings by the Turner-nominated British painter Hurvin Anderson would hang out near Édouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882). In Manet’s tricksy, scintillating mood piece, a cabaret and its clientele are reflected in the grand-looking glass behind a well-primed bar. With its mirrored surfaces, doubled figures, disorienting depth, and foreground stocked with jostling bottles, Manet’s painting of nocturnal Paris at play is this exhibition’s honorary godfather.
The show’s title – Salon Paintings – does triple service. “Salon” was a gathering where fashionable bohemians fought over colour theory and absinthe. The “Salon” was the official art exhibition of the Paris Académie des Beaux Arts – in the 19th century, arguably the most prestigious painting show in the world. (Manet’s painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1882.) A “salon hang” indicates that paintings are shown in great concentration, crammed onto a gallery wall.
“Salon” here also indicates a more quotidian location. Anderson’s paintings address the hair salon as a cultural site and place of exchange – a hub for the transfer of news and ideas between black men of different generations. Like a character seen transformed in the mirror of the bar of the Folies-Bergères, the barbershop is here offered as a companion site to the literary salons and exhibition galleries of 19th-century Paris.
Recently appointed a Royal Academician, Anderson is a thoughtful, careful painter who also embraces unpredictability – many works are viewed as though through a humid, sweaty fug, evoked by thin washes of paint that course down the canvases in loose rivulets. He thinks about the way objects and images float free in our memory – all the trees we climbed as children, all the low houses in all the gardens – blurring locations across continents. Hot colours dart across his paintings like fish on a coral reef. There is even the occasional metallic sparkle. He is interested in the impact a framing device has on the way we interpret an image – lush greenery viewed through wrought iron curls, for example, suggesting a gated space from which we are excluded.
Anderson paints many things, but the subject – or perhaps more accurately, the format – of the barber’s shop is one he has returned to many times since 2006. The salons that caught his eye in Birmingham – spaces with banks of mirrors on opposite walls, bottles and tubs of pomade and preparations lining the shelves and pictures stuck to every available surface – were buzzing and disorderly, their floors dusted with hair and coiling with clipper cables.
How to apply order, how to make a picture, of all this unruly visual information? This question has preoccupied Anderson on and off for the past 16 years, and has taken him on a journey that has pushed him all the way into geometric abstraction. In Miss Jamaica (2021) we could be looking at a colour field painting – fuzzy oblongs of hazmat yellow, black and incarnadine floating on a pale blue ground – were it not for the inclusion of a spindly little plant and pinup photo, which tether the middle of the picture and transform all this colour into a place.
Throughout the salon paintings, plants, fans and barbers’ chairs perform as characters, appearing as three-dimensional objects in the otherwise depopulated “real” space reflected in the flat world of the mirrors. The pictures pinned around the walls become paintings within the painting – “salon hangs” ordered according to a theme. In Is it OK to be Black? (2016), Anderson decorates the walls with heroic portraits of Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
By the end of the series Anderson has passed through abstraction to explore the human figure again. In Skiffle (2023), a man in a black robe appears in one mirror, watching figures on the other side of the salon – their silhouettes blue and blended in the reflected distance. Is he a priest? Or has he been ordained by the barbershop robe protecting his clothes? Images pinned to the walls around him include a photomontage of martial artists, a formal family portrait, technical drawings of hairstyles, a Caribbean palm leaf, and a map of Africa. On a black menu board: fade, flat top, high top, side part, trim shave, skiffle.
In Shear Cut (2023), figures face us in both mirrors – to the right, a barber and client tilt heads in tandem mid trim. On the left, a young man stares out at us – or perhaps we are the young boy looking at our reflection in the mirror and the salon around us? All the pictures on the walls are in the same place they were in Skiffle, but now imageless, reduced to rectangles of washy colour. The young man and the plants behind him are the still points of focus in a composition leached of other detail as though captured by an eye skimming idly over the space.
This show goes deep nerd on Anderson’s painting process – there are not only preparatory oil sketches, but also technical plans in which he uses layers of translucent paper to evoke successive layers of objects reflected back and forth into the infinity space between the mirrors, which grow more and more faint beneath the accumulating layers of paper as they recede. I found them fascinating. I suspect enthusiasm for this show will rather depend on your interest in painting and composition as process. It is, as my American colleagues would say, a little “inside baseball”. Returning to the main gallery after seeing the sketches and plans, you read the paintings very differently, coming to appreciate the layers within the composition, and the repeating reflections disappearing off into infinity.
As a companion display, Anderson has curated paintings by other artists that reflect influence and kinship in various ways. There’s a little Eaun Uglow – the pincushion still life Saint Sebastian (1978) – which figures. Like Anderson, Uglow was a precise show-your-workings perfectionist. R.B. Kitaj’s Screenplay (1967) offers a landscape seen through a decorative carved screen. That figures too. As do various early, sketchy, intimate portraits of Black men by Denzil Forrester.
The surprise choice, for me, were paintings by Michael Andrews, who I think of as a storytelling painter. Certainly, you can see how Anderson would be interested in the bustle of his bar-room scenes and sky-scraper nightscape, but I had not previously been looking at the barbershop works as narrative, or dramatic. This little curated display suggests Andersons is pulled back and forth between formal concerns and interest in the character of the space and people with which he populates his fantasy barbershops.
Salon Paintings makes a strong case for Anderson as a contemplative, experimental and highly skilled painter – we see him pushing himself to see, compose and paint in new ways – but I couldn’t help wanting more. I want to be able to apply the new vision offered by this insightful show to other bodies of work, to get a sense of his stretch and variety, as well as his capacity to keep working over the same, intense, terrain.
Hurvin Anderson, Salon Paintings is at The Hepworth Wakefield until 5 November