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Raising hell 

Clive Barker unleashes his demons

click to enlarge Tattooed Yellow Acrobat
  • Tattooed Yellow Acrobat

Many of Clive Barker's paintings are colorful and ornate. Some are highly erotic. Most leave a distinct impression, like the flash that burns behind the eyes after staring at a light bulb for too long.

More than 400 paintings are featured in the recently released collection of his work, Clive Barker: Visions of Heaven and Hell. Feverish in intensity, featuring foldouts and full color, Visions includes many paintings intended for the Abarat book series, though most of the pieces have not been published before.

Because of his renown as a horror novelist and screenwriter, it's easy to read far too much into Barker's art. Are we glimpsing his personal demons and obsessions, as in some garish Rorschach test?

Barker, perhaps best recognized for his Hellraiser and Candyman series, spoke with the Indy recently from his home-slash-studio in Los Angeles.

Indy: What was the hardest thing you found in compiling this book?

Barker: Finding a balance between the works from very long ago, the black-and-white stuff from my early years, which I really like but doesn't have as much power as the color pieces do. I let go of a lot of it in favor of the color pieces.

The paintings are large. My favorite size is 48 inches by 60 inches; that's a common size amongst paintings. It really is great finally to have them on a big page. In Abarat, the reproductions are amazing, the paper is beautiful and so on, but the pictures are much reduced. It's nice to see them bigger so that people can pick out where I scratched, or pull through something from underneath, often another painting that I painted on top of.

Indy: You say that your drawing and writing sort of begat each other -- that as a child, you had to explain your drawings. Do you have a story for each of your paintings?

Barker: Almost all, yes. In some cases -- particularly those paintings that I have in my head -- they loosely are book three of the Abarat series, or book four. I'm not sure which is which yet. I haven't absolutely finished with myself mythologizing about them; sometimes I feel like you should leave that until the moment of writing.

I don't want to feel like the adventuring of writing -- the whole fun of discovering something on a Monday morning even when you didn't want to go -- that pleasure shouldn't disappear. I've investigated the paintings too much before the process of writing about them. But I still have my little bits of self-created myth and story attached to easily 50 to 60 percent of them.

Sometimes I give elaborate descriptions of what I think paintings are. Other times I probably am down to a title or silence (laughs). It depends on the painting, or how long I've been working on the painting. Obviously if I've been working on a painting for weeks, there's much more time to develop what the picture is.

Indy: You take pains to write pretty extensive introductions for each section.

Barker: Well, first let me ask you: Were they useful?

Indy: Definitely.

Barker: That's good. I felt a little agonized about them. I actually went back and forth about them. I was trying my best not to over-explain the paintings, because you can be a pain in the ass about that. I didn't want to be sitting at the viewer's shoulder, insisting, "This painting means this."

Indy: You write a snippet about making faces in the window when you were little, to scare away the monsters -- that you could be worse than they ever could. Is that why you write or paint? Are you still chasing away monsters?

Barker: I think there's elements of that. ... Certainly, fear is one of the things that made me creative as a child. I don't think those things ever completely leave you. I just turned 53, and you'd think, boy, some of those things from the age of 7 would've been gone by now, but no. I think those things are buried a bit more deeply.

click to enlarge Death with Red Wings
  • Death with Red Wings

The great self-indulgent joy that an artist has is to be an archeologist of the self. You dig through your own past, looking for clues. Writing the introductions made me look at the pictures in new ways myself, certainly made me think about the kinds of obsessions that I have.

This thing about putting things on people's heads, which I talk about, it's the most common thing I paint -- something on someone's head, whether it's an egg or a huge hat or a wave or whatever. That is absolutely an obsession of mine. I think it's very much about celebrating my imagination, celebrating the fact of the imagination, something that [poet William] Blake says is the divine part of us.

Indy: So to paint, or to write, is it purging for you?

Barker: Like a cathartic kind of thing? I certainly know when I've finished a book more than a painting. When I finish a book, I feel a certain emptiness, which suggests a certain cathartic element, but that also may mean that it's been a part of my life for a year or 18 months, and now I have to think of something new to become the center of my creative world.

In the classic sense of purging, which is getting rid of something, I don't think it is. I do enjoy revisiting them, which suggests that it's not something that I willingly purged.

Indy: You don't put it to bed so easily.

Barker: Exactly! Or maybe it never fit into the category of something I wished to be purged, anyway. It's just simply something that I took a joy in finding some expression for.

Part of the challenge is, how do I shape these things that are in my head into something that a reader or viewer can understand and enjoy? That challenge is very often what drives you back to a piece of paper or the camera.

I came to my desk this morning in the middle of a scene in a novel that I'm writing called The Scarlet Gospels. Man, I couldn't get there fast enough. I couldn't get out of my shower and into my clothes fast enough. And that isn't always the case; some days I have to drag myself. Today, I happen to have left my characters in a particularly dangerous place. And I wanted to figure out what was going to happen to them; I wanted to be there when it happened. In that case it's not a purging, it's just a bliss of story.

Indy: In Visions, you say that your books are gorily graphic, featuring rivers of blood, while your art is rather bloodless. Why is that?

Barker: Movies do the blood thing better. There's a few good gory paintings, but I think it's really hard to do that stuff effectively in painting. If you want to scare or gross people out, the thing to do is make a movie of it.

I go to my canvas 50 percent of the time not having a clue what I'm going to do, and 50 percent of the time having a half a clue, but never having anything finished or completed in my head. The idea of having preparatory sketches, the 19th-century way of making a painting, with models and stuff ... it would not work for me.

Blake again says that nature is the enemy of art, which I take to mean strict realism is almost a repressor of the imagination. And given the fact that he says imagination is the divine instinct, you don't want to be repressing that. I feel I have to trust my imagination. I don't know where I'm going, but that's kind of fun.

-- Kara Luger

capsule

Clive Barker: Visions of Heaven and Hell

by Clive Barker

Rizzoli, $50/hardcover

  • Clive Barker unleashes his demons

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