Growing up, I thought every house in America had an Ernie Barnes painting, because everyone I knew had a print in their living room. My wall featured The Graduate and everyday I looked at the proud black figure walking tall, diploma in hand. Its not hard to tell how images like this shape a person. What I still love most about that painting is the dynamism, you feel like the subject was caught mid action. That was one of Ernie Barnes’ strengths.
For those who may not know his name, you definitely know his art. His most ubiquitous image is the painting Sugar Shack which was featured in the opening credits for Good Times and was reinterpreted for a Marvin Gaye album cover. The picture has become a requisite example of old school celebrations and good times. For Barnes the image captures his innocence lost at his first dance experience. The rhythmic feel of the art transmits the viewer to that moment, losing one in the feel of the moment.
Barnes’ has been honored by many art critics as ushering in the neo-mannerist style. harking his style back to the master Michelangelo for the way he depicts his subjects. Some of Barnes’ signature techniques can be found throughout his portfolio. One recurring theme is the closed eyes of his subject. Quotes from Barnes show that this was to represent how we are blinded by humanity and not actually seeing one another. Another, was his unique framing style of raw, aging, fencing wood in homage to his father.
Inspired by his previous athletic career, all his figures often appear with elongated limbs to convey their motion. He honed this technique drawing during his downtime on the sidelines as a professional football player. This also influenced many sports centered paintings. Over his career, Barnes was named the official artist for the Games of the XXIII Olympiad in 1984, he was commissioned to do a piece for the LA Lakers Championship in 1987, and produced the 50 year commemoration of the NBA with the piece, The Dream Unfolds.
In his later years, Barnes used his art to explore aspects of black culture and humanity drawing inspiration from the LA Race Riots and 9/11. He also completed a mural for performer, Kanye West, entitled A Life Restored. Upon his death in 2009, Barnes was working on an exhibition which his estate is still working on showcasing.