Arts Writing Samples

LESLIE BARLOW'S MIXED-RACE IDENTITY INSPIRES HER 
TO PAINT UNDERREPRESENTED PEOPLE


There are plenty of portrait painters in Minnesota, but few have captured such a wide range of diverse faces in the tender and beautiful way Leslie Barlow does. The recent MCAD MFA grad focuses on the underrepresented faces of the Twin Cities, a mission driven by the lack of visibility of stories like hers: people of mixed-race backgrounds.

Barlow first became fascinated by the question of how we define who we are in the fifth grade, when she was asked to label her race on a standardized test. This was before the “other” box existed or multiple choices were allowed. She checked “African-American” (her father is primarily black), but when she went home and relayed the day’s events, her mother (who is primarily white) asked why she hadn’t checked the “white” box.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m being pulled in two different communities or I feel like I’m not part of any community because of my background,” says Barlow.

This isn’t only about skin color, however; in her work the artist examines multiple aspects of identity, including spirituality, sexuality, gender, socioeconomic status, community, and educational background. “Our identities are so complex. You don’t have one privilege or one disadvantage,” she says. “I’m really interested in where different parts of identity overlap or intersect.”

She’s also interested in the untold stories of her hometown. There are two sides to Minneapolis, she says: one that is highly ranked in lists for being among the best places to be fit, start a career, raise a family, and to live a long life. Then there’s the other side: the side that suffers from income and racial disparities.

“If you just open your eyes and speak to people in the community, it’s pretty obvious how segregated it is,” Barlow says. “We’re being told this one story of Minneapolis, but that story doesn’t extend to people of color living in this city, which is problematic in itself but also because we’re being told a lie.”

Barlow’s paintings aren’t blatantly aimed at social justice; they’re much more subtle than that. Subjects are presented in somber, contemplative, introspective moments. We don’t know what’s going on inside their heads, but the images feel honest, evoking reverence and compassion in the viewer. Skin tones are never monochromatic; they’re multilayered, complex. Many of Barlow’s paintings are large-scale, allowing the viewer to gaze eye-to-eye with her subjects.  

During the early years of her artistry, the painter shied away from self-portraits. “A lot of these things, whether it’s race or identity, it gets so murky and it’s complex, and I feel vulnerable when I’m talking about it, so I didn’t necessarily want my face in the painting. It’s already so personal,” she says.

She’s since overcome that hurdle, including her own visage among those of her friends and family that populate her paintings. As part of her recently awarded MN State Arts Board grant, Barlow will create a series of large-scale portraits of interracial families. The project was inspired by the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court Case, which invalidated laws against interracial marriage.

“I think this is a thing that people either don’t know or is hard to wrap your mind around. My parents lived in a time when they couldn’t get married to each other. That is freaky,” she says. Painting unique family configurations is her way of “celebrating these relationships and normalizing them.”

Barlow was also recently commissioned to create artwork in the new Vikings stadium. She was among the 34 artists chosen from over 1,100 applicants. The project involved depicting six iconic Vikings players and allowed her the freedom to play with lighting, color palette, and style. Some portraits are intimate; others are action-oriented. She’s excited for those pieces to reach a whole new audience that might not otherwise frequent the gallery scene.

But for now, Barlow is gearing up for “A Third Space,” her exhibition opening this Thursday at Flow Art Space. Much of what will be shown is thesis work created during her last semester at MCAD; there will also be two new pieces she completed this summer.

“I pose more questions than answers,” she says of the collection. “‘A Third Space’ is basically combating the norms of binary thinking, thinking we are pretty much taught since birth to think is normal and right.”

As for those racial identification boxes that brought to light racial identity in the first place? Now Barlow says she checks “other,” though the word reminds her of the sci-fi show Lost. And sometimes, she says, “I check all of the boxes just for fun.”

Originally published on City Pages’ website in July 2016.


PAINTER CHRISTOPHER SORENSON FINDS BEAUTY IN DISEASE


The body is a messenger, and Minnesota artist Christopher Sorenson has painted its missives in a series of paintings called “Dis-Ease.” They will be featured in an exhibition on pathology and healing, tentatively titled “Itch,” opening on October 28 at City Wide Artists.

Populated with skulls, sunflowers, and splashes of hot-pink paint, Sorenson’s art is pretty, but the muses are grim: psoriasis, malaria, gonorrhea, syphilis, cancer, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis.

A bodyworker and masseuse by trade, the 33-year-old Sorenson first explored these diseases through his homeopathic training. Later, he researched Western medicine approaches to learn more about pathogens and how they destroy the body.

Homeopathy looks at one’s energetic susceptibility to disease; if there is a weakness in the system, it’s an open door for illness. It’s a massive paradigm shift from the Western medicine approach, which seeks to find the cause and effect of a disease, then medicates the symptoms.

For his painting series, Sorenson posted open calls via Facebook to encourage real-life sufferers of these diseases to speak to him about their experiences. Those conversations played into the color choices, and how vibrant or gripping he wanted each piece to be.

To further enrich his work, Sorenson examined how doctors dealt with patients suffering from these diseases in the past, especially when religious codes of society were at their strictest. “Those things became devastating on a level that we don’t necessarily have to deal with today,” he says of the ailments.

At the time homeopathy was founded by German doctor Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700s, syphilis was considered the deepest level of disease. “There was no way to cover it up,” Sorenson says. “That’s where the level of hopelessness and despair really comes in.”

If you contracted gonorrhea, it was a sign you were probably unfaithful; and while it likely wouldn’t be fatal, it could make you sterile. As for AIDS? “It’s a kind of modern-day leprosy,” Sorenson says. “There’s this feeling after you know you have it of being untouchable.”

Look over Sorenson’s past and it’s easy to see why health is at the forefront of his mind.

“I never went to the doctor as a kid,” he says. “I was always treated with chiropractic or acupuncture or herbal remedies.” So when he had a personal crisis in his 20s, he didn’t have faith that Western medicine or even psychology could help him. He went to a homeopath instead. The first appointment was three hours long. “I felt completely seen on all levels: body, mind, soul. It was really compelling,” Sorenson says.

The crisis was a long time coming. At age 17, while a student at White Bear Lake High School, he came out as gay. “My parents reacted really poorly to the situation,” he says. “I went into therapy and went through a process where I effectively chose to suppress a big part of myself.”

He married young, and his then-wife, Anna, gave birth to their daughter midway through his junior year in college. Two weeks later, Anna suffered a massive stroke. Sorenson found her, not breathing, in the bathroom. Doctors later explained that the left hemisphere of her brain — where language is located — was affected. Anna couldn’t speak, read, or write; she also lost coordination on the right side of her body. Sorenson says his parents were a “massive godsend” over the ensuing months, as he shuttled Anna to rehabilitation therapy and simultaneously took care of their newborn.

By the time classes started up again in the fall, the couple were back in college. “She made what they were calling one of the most miraculous turnarounds that they had ever seen,” Sorenson says of Anna. They would later welcome a son into their family.

On the surface, all appeared to be well, but internally, Sorenson was “teetering on the edge of going bananas.” One of the questions the homeopath raised was the amount of expression versus suppression in Sorenson’s life. “[I had] a really horrible realization that if I wanted to live fully, I would have to undo some things that I had done, and leave my marriage and not be a full-time father for my children,” he says.

Sorenson came out as gay again, though he and Anna continued to cohabit and co-parent for four more years in their St. Peter home. Sorenson also started painting during this time. “It wasn’t until the shit hit the fan that I was really compelled to set up a studio in my house and buy a whole bunch of paint and canvas,” he says.

Sorenson’s early work consisted of dreamy, graphic blooms inspired by flower remedies he learned while studying at the Northwestern Academy of Homeopathy in St. Louis Park. Many of those paintings have ended up in hospital settings.

He then moved on to multilayered flower paintings that incorporated the minerals he was studying; these pieces are somewhat darker, grittier. “I tried to take information about the composition of the molecules into account and, in hindsight, I realized that no one else would really understand,” he says.

In 2012, Sorenson moved to Minneapolis and established a relationship with a man. After three years, that relationship ended, prompting soul-searching on Sorenson’s part to find out what led to its demise. He noticed a common thread in his behavior, be it with his ex-wife, his ex-boyfriend, or with his parents. “It was pretty clear that I have a tendency to want to keep the peace and make sure everyone’s happy, and I really give myself away,” he says. “I’m not speaking up for myself. I’m not saying what I think or what I need.”

He again turned to art to process the pattern. Sketches turned into a series of canvas and leather cutout pieces featuring agape mouths adjacent to exclamation points. The “Chomp!” series was born. “I was tired of painting,” Sorenson says of the divergence from his previous work. “I wanted to do something pop-ish and graphic.”

When Sorenson attended a Valentine’s Day event earlier this year at local home goods store Pharmacie, he couldn’t help but notice the venue’s substantial window space. He approached the owners and offered to turn “Chomp!” into a display for Pride. The rainbow-colored mouth installation went up the day after the Orlando nightclub shooting in June.

And that brings us back to “Dis-Ease,” which will be featured alongside work from supporting artists Llane Alexis, who specializes in textiles and is developing a series of healing voodoo dolls, and Jesse Nagamatsu, an MCAD grad who does fine graphite paintings. Kill Kancer has signed up to be a co-host of the opening with a portion of the commission that City Wide Artists makes going toward fighting cancer.

“I think this show is going to have a profound impact on the community, in addition to showing some new, interesting, beautiful art,” says Teqen Zéa-Aida, curator at the gallery. “[Sorenson] takes those embodiments of, say, cancer or HIV, and shows graphically the pain, the anger, the suffering, the insecurity… and then he applies, through painting, the homeopathy, the natural remedies: energy, light, sound, plants. In the end, it is as if something that was ugly or terrifying has been made beautiful.”

As for Sorenson’s body-mind-soul balance, it’s a work in progress. Anna, who is remarrying this month, has since moved to Duluth with the children, so Sorenson alternates weeks parenting and painting up north with time spent doing bodywork and massage at the Firm in Minneapolis. “We are both in such better places than before,” he says. “We both effectively started over and have new things going for ourselves.”

Going forward, the artist has his eye on a new market: Chicago or New York, “places where loud, strong art is the norm,” he says. “What I have experienced is most people here, if they have money and they want to invest it in art, tend to lean conservatively, so they’re looking for classical work, landscapes, portraits. Massive paintings of skulls made out of flowers are not super high on the list.”

Still, Zéa-Aida, who has experienced Sorenson’s body work and considers it as intuitive as his art, is eagerly anticipating the exhibition: “I’m so excited about his work. I think it’s very timely.” He says he finds hope in the paintings, that they reassure us that “we can move past whatever ails us. We can move past whatever is hurting us.”

Sorenson echoes this sentiment. “I have a lot of respect for it,” he says of pain. “Pain brings us into our bodies and it brings us into living right here, right now. Not a lot else does it.”

When things are good, we let ourselves be distracted; we daydream about the future or indulge nostalgia of the past. When things go wrong, Western medicine looks to suppress the discomfort. Sorenson cautions against that approach, and advises leaning into it instead. “Get into the ugly and the muck,” he says. “You have to do it, and you’ll be so much more alive because of it.”


Originally published in City Pages in Sept. 2016.


PATRICK MARTINEZ: CONVERSATION STARTER


Los Angeles artist provokes dialogue about police brutality and inner-city life.

“I don’t decorate. I disrupt. I want to be able to shake someone up,” says Patrick Martinez, an artist who pulls from the visual vocabulary of his lifelong hometown of Los Angeles. The 35-year-old sparks discussion through paintings, neon signage and multi-media pieces inspired by different “pockets” of the city and their cultural communities.

His work is at times an homage, occasionally a critique, but ultimately, a bridge. “It’s using the untapped to communicate a certain idea,” he explains. “It might not be that deep. It might just be an aesthetic thing or a message to marinate in.”

He shouts in some pieces, whispers in others, but avoids being preachy, preferring a genuine conversation to a “That’s nice” response. “When I talk to someone, it’s from the gut and from the heart,” he says.

Take, for example, his work with Pee Chee portfolios, a type of folder first made in 1943 and popular throughout the second half of the 20th century. The original Pee Chees were made in solid colors with a series of lines down the left side and images of varsity athletes or cheerleaders on the right. Everyone carried them in Martinez’s school days. They’re a slice of Americana, which is why he’s “remixed” them and replaced the sports imagery with scenes of police brutality and portraits of young people killed at the hands of cops.

“When I was growing up, to be a police officer was a really cool thing. When you’re a kid, you respected that,” he says. Now, “the police are a militarized kind of organization that’s over-prescribing the community. They don’t know how to deal with situations anymore.”

Guided by online video and photographs, he created a dozen Pee Chee-style paintings. When he began the project in 2005, “there was not a lot of meat there,” he says. “Now I have all this reference material and it’s kind of scary.” Completing the series wasn’t fulfilling enough, however; Martinez wanted to get the art out to the community. He has since printed up thousands of folders and is passing them out to high school and college kids. “The youth are not going to the shows. They don’t have access to that. Some kid that’s into art will seek it out on the Internet, but it’s not going to come to them. They’re too busy. This is a way of me reaching out.”

Martinez’s work has celebratory tones as well. Two mixed-media pieces titled “25 and still alive” are cake replicas featuring portraits of men with whom he grew up. The faux pastries are decorated to the hilt with ceramic roses and bright, loopy “frosting.” They look good enough to eat.

“These guys have lived their life on the edge and they’re still here,” he says. “They’re growing up now and becoming responsible and trying to figure things out, navigate life.”

As an artist, Martinez has come a long way as well. He began doing graffiti at age 12, attended an arts high school, and received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He’s since exhibited in group and solo shows throughout California, across the country, and in Canada.

That’s not to say it’s been easy; the art world remains a playground for white, upper-class patrons. Martinez, who is of Filipino, Mexican and Native American heritage, tries not to focus on the skewed demographics. “ I don’t want to be an artist that’s frustrated going to shows. I just want to make good work,” he says. Still, he has noticed that show rosters don’t often represent the diverse population of Los Angeles with which he’s intimately familiar. “Art is the language of many, so why wouldn’t they want to have a diverse roster?” he asks. Though he sometimes senses that people have preconceived notions about his art because of his last name, it doesn’t keep him up at night. “I don’t let it get me jaded. It’s something that I go, ‘Okay. I just got to work harder now.’”

Upward mobility is a recurring theme in Martinez’s neon signs; his thought-provoking multi-colored messages include “Pawn Your Dreams For A 9-5,” “Don’t Make Sense Make Dollars,” “I Don’t Like To Dream About Getting Paid,” and “Selling Out Is The New Keeping It Real.” In his still life and ceramic pieces, classic and contemporary references collide: fruit bowls are penetrated with firearms, flowers mingle with Colt 45, elevating urban iconography to Cezanne-level sophistication.

His blend of hard (security bars on a window) and the soft (bougainvillea) is representative of the clash between the bucolic Los Angeles landscape and the harsh realities that unfold within it. “It’s always strange to me,” Martinez says. “We have a lot of sunny days here, beautiful weather, and then you hear about these violent situations.” When he reads stories in the L.A. Times about crime, he imagines discarded murder weapons abandoned among rose bushes, a blue jay hopping over litter. His ability to take what the viewer would rather not see—the grit, the struggle, the savagery—and frame it so stunningly that you can’t look away is what makes Martinez’s artistry extraordinary.

“I grew up here, so I understand it in a way that has no celebrity involved,” he says of the City of Angels. “There’s a sublime beauty to it. Being here all my life, I’ve learned to appreciate it.”

Originally published on Crave Online in April 2016.