Each sculpture by Gabriel Barredo is a striking bravura performance of the artis’s hyperactive and surreal imagination, obsessive craftmanship, and a host of unlikely media—from carved rubber, to bed springs, to show polish locks. Unlike his works, the reason why he does what he does is surprisingly simple.
By Tara FT Sering | Photographs by Nicky Sering
You can tell by the work that Gabriel Barredo produces that he’s not exactly one to do anything half-baked. His own home, in a quiet suburb south of Manila, is the street’s main attraction with its frontage of lush trees and a curtain of long, slim vines reminiscent of those found in old estates, intricate wrought-iron gates and window rails, and sculpted human figures cast in all white hanging overhead like floating sentries. The general look is difficult to encapsulate tidily into a particular architectural or design style, and this is perhaps the goal of the whole exercise. This is exactly the kind of house that makes you do a double take.
In life and home, as in his art, Barredo is relentless in his pursuit of details and the results they produce when assembled, first in his artist’s mind, then in his studio. “I don’t like things that are flat,” Barredo says, albeit uncertainly, because the truth of the matter is that he doesn’t really know of another way of doing things.
“This changes all the time. As soon as I get tired of it, I move things around,” he says, referring to the setup in his living room. It’s hard to tell what the centerpiece of the high-ceilinged room is—one wall has an almost ceiling to floor drapery of tiny plastic toy babies strung together, another has cast a human figure with an large eye for a head and backdrop of hundreds of Kiwi shoe polish locks glued together and glossed over with a metallic finish. At the center of the room is a large square glass tabletop and a spread of canapés, whipped up by Barredo himself, and a tray of small cakes. Barredo’s attention to detail extends to even the otherwise mundane activity of late afternoon refreshments.
Fresh from a successful one-month solo show at the Soka Art Center in Beijing two weeks before the Olympics—where he curated his own show and covered the entire art space with velvet fabric to serve as backdrop to his pieces—Barredo has returned to the rhythm of his home, which he confesses he hardly ever leaves except when he drives to a favorite beachside retreat in Batangas. “I work at an even pace because I don’t like rushing a piece,” he says. “I normally only schedule shows every three years so I can take my time.” The last show he put together, entitled [IN] VISIBLE was at the Ayala Museum in 2005.
His art does take a lot of time and effort. Of his process, he says, “I put something together, and when I see that it’s not quite what I intended it to be, or that it can become something better or something else entire, I take it apart and start over.”
As a young boy of age four or five, Barredo received a present from his mother who had just returned from a trip to China. It was a walnut whose shell had been carved—patiently and laboriously, one might imagine—with tiny, intricate details. What those details were Barredo can hardly remember, but the memory of how amazed he had been is clear in his mind.
It was the same amazement he felt when he was given another such gift, this time from Hong Kong, a carved ivory ball within a ball. “It was such a tiny thing but to me it was extremely fascinating how it was done,” recalls Barredo.
These early moments of complete awe triggered a lifelong fascination for what he calls “eccentric Chinese art”, art seemingly borne out of little else but its creator’s whimsy and yet, at the same time, mesmerizes and enchants on the strength of its imagination and craftsmanship. “The inventiveness of Chinese art,” he explains, “rises exponentially when you consider that they’ve been doing this for thousands of years, before modern technology made the once-impossible possible.” The genius of creation, after all, lies in both the execution as well as in the very conception of the idea. Last September’s show in Beijing, his first in mainland China, has been like coming full circle for the artist who has long been a fan of Chinese art.
It might seem a little too neat to conclude that these little objects of wonder were what inspired Barredo’s art, but they certainly planted the seeds of what was possible. The rest, Barredo admits, is a confluence of childhood experiences and circumstances at various stages of his life. Although Barredo says he hates to travel, and only does so out of pure necessity, he has transplanted himself several times over into diverse environments for long periods of time—he has lived in one of the world’s art capitals, New York; then in the American southern state of Georgia where he worked as set and costume designer for the Atlanta Ballet Company; then as a counselor for recovering troubled youths in California; and then as a designer of wearable art, or sculptural wear, in the posh districts of Los Angeles, where his clients included Hollywood celebrities and American rock royalty.
Throughout his various incarnations, his works have resisted the changing trends in art and has remained steadfast in its code—effusive, detailed, baroque, with kitsch thrown in to varying degrees.
“I was born to a family of artists,” Barredo explains, “and art, especially the performing arts, was just a constant around me.” His aunt is Baby Barredo, widely acknowledged at the First Lady of Philippine Musical Theater, and his older sister is prima ballerina Maniya Barredo.
Although he completed a course in advertising at the University of Santo Tomas, Barredo never joined the industry and instead concentrated on work as a full time artist and set designer, especially for the ballet. “I was always in the theater because of my older sister,” he says, “and so I learned the ropes of stage design, especially for the ballet.” His heroes, he recalls, were the likes of legend Salvador “Badong” Bernal.
As an artist in the early Eighties, he picked up award after award after award—the gold medal for painting at the Art Association of the Philippines’ Annual Competition in 1981, then the gold medal for sculpture at the same competition in 1982, and yet another gold in 1984, this time at the Metrobank Annual Art Competition.
In the thick of a critically acclaimed career, he moved to Georgia, USA where he worked as set designer for the ballet, before moving on west, all the way to Southern California, where he worked as head counselor teaching art as therapy at a rehab facility. “It was a gritty environment,” recalls Barredo, whose students, aged 13 to 18, were all attempting to recover from some form of abuse and trauma. “I thought I had a fairly traumatic childhood, but when I got there, all my issues paled in comparison to what those kids were going through.
“These kids were from different backgrounds— some were Latin Americans, children of migrants with an added layer of angst,” recalls Barredo, “so the atmosphere at group sessions was always charged, almost explosive.”
The stint as counselor and art instructor at the rehab center appears to be a defining moment in Barredo’s life and career: the exercise of teaching art elevated his own work from compulsion to highly disciplined craft. Guiding his students towards channeling feelings into art was a learning experience for Barredo himself. “I asked them to create works on a five by five board, and the results were startling. Full of raw emotion.”
This is something Barredo understands, and he admits that strains of a troubled youth emerge in his work. For instance, elements of Roman Catholicism, the religion he grew up with, have found their way into his pieces. “I had many traumas and issues growing up,” he says, all of which have fueled his imagination. Whatever the torments and ultimate triumphs of his childhood, they have provided endless fodder for the artist’s imagination.
Barredo’s works have once been described as “poetry in heavy metal”, “otherworldly,” and even strange, but always striking and elaborate. They speak, unflinchingly, of grand themes. An all-seeing eye gazes steadily at the world while a human figure breaks free of the cage of a breast; a winged chair of gilded feathers and hands that move in a slow rhythm; a full-grown human figure crouched in a somewhat fetal position; and in a number of his works, human figures writhing en masse, with arms and hands reaching in ecstasy, or in pleas, it seems, for salvation from eternal damnation. The titles of the works reinforce
the religious overtones, although Barredo says, “titles are the last thing on my mind.” But whatever the themes that drive the creation of each piece, these all seem secondary to the sheer craftmanship and, yes, inventiveness that go into each one.
In his studio, Barredo wanders over to a large wall installation of sculpted metal, carved rubber, glass and numerous tiny bells attached to springs. “It’s a screaming chime,” he says, and when he plugs it in it breaks into a hysterical tinkling frenzy that startles me. “It needs more bells. It’s not loud enough.”
Although his works are almost always over-the-top, there is a certain unnamable unity in them, a quality that says the piece, for all its operatic exuberance, is just as it should be.
Because his works have been consistent in character, it’s safe to say that rather than
struggling to find his audience, Barredo worked and waited for his audience to find him. Barredo’s work has a kind of cult following, long-time collectors who have also become friends, who regularly drop in on his impeccably neat studio just across his home (incidentally, you can tell it’s his because of the similar standout motif ).
Whatever people make of his work— and Barredo admits that once you put it out there, you subject it to all kinds of interpretation—Barredo says the pleasure he derives is from creating whatever he feels like making, without the pressure of commerce or criticism. He is quick to acknowledge that this is a privilege few have been able to claim. “I feel very lucky to be in such a place,” he says. “I just do what I do to break free of the monotony, of the mundane.”
And the highest form of compliment is that involuntarily gasp of awe that escapes the viewer’s mouth the moment he sees the work. Proof, he says, that he has done something out of the ordinary, a break from the monotony, a challenge to the mind and mentality, which is, if he absolutely must find a reason other than the joy of creation, why he does what he does.