The first thing that strikes me about the barbershop in Hurvin Anderson’s painting Flat Top are the straight lines. They echo through the rectangular shapes scattered across the wall, making a patchwork of shapes that Anderson has called cubist. The second thing that strikes me are the hair clippings that lie across the floor, disrupting the geometric tightness of the composition with their tufty irregularity. It is a vibrant, living scene, rich with dissonant colours and tactile textures.
Art history and the legacy of western painting is the point of departure for Hurvin Anderson’s new show. The works, made between 2006 and 2023, depict imagined barbershop spaces inspired by real ones. Anderson calls them “social spaces” in the tradition of the cafe paintings of the impressionists. Over the course of this hymn to the Black British Caribbean community, Anderson explores the reaches of the shapes that make up the space.
He says it was the mirrors that drew him to paint his first such work, Barbershop. The slipperiness of reflection is a central site of inquiry throughout the series, in fact. As in Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, the discomfort of seeing a mirror but not seeing yourself reflected in it, or indeed seeing someone else, reminds the viewer that their relationship to the space inside the painting is disjointed and incomplete. The words that we use to describe the preoccupations of Manet and other early French modernists – flatness, materiality, the ephemerality of urban life – describe Anderson’s work, too. Anderson layers this artistic heritage over modern meanings, making works that are visually overlapping and conceptually collage-like.
His work is about his own life, in the details of the barbershops he creates and in the broader drive to create and claim an artistic legacy for Black British social spaces. But it is also very much about painting itself and the aesthetic evolution of modernist ideas. He underlines this in the accompanying exhibition at the Hepworth. In this space, he has pulled 18 works from British public galleries, along with a few from private collections including his own, that “take you on a journey through his formative influences”. The works range from an interior by Duncan Grant to a video work by Keith Piper, to a collage by Richard Hamilton. This array of works has affinities to Anderson’s barbershops that are sometimes obvious and at other times unexpected. By situating himself within this larger context of British work, Anderson claims his inheritance of a long tradition of visual art that interrogates form, colour and modern life.
With this framing, the opportunity to see the evolution of Anderson’s exploration of the barbershop setting in one space is exceptional. It almost feels like a single installation piece, because each work so overtly references the others yet says something new. His two final works in the series were created for this exhibition and have never been seen publicly before. In these two paintings, Shear Cut and Skiffle, Anderson has removed the barbers’ chairs that occupy the foreground of his earlier works and added the figures of client and barber to the mirrors. He places the viewer in the position of client for the first time, closer to the mirror and almost embodied within the space, rather than looking in from behind the chairs.
The rectangular forms of mirrors, posters and other paraphernalia that characterise all these images are legible for the first time in the final work, Skiffle. We can read a list of the services on offer – “fade”, “flat top”, “high top” – and see a flyer for karate lessons, a poster that reads “sunset/sunrise” and a photograph of a group of people in formal dress. The face of the barber is still illegible, his form blue and void. Is he the artist or the barber? Who is allowed into the painting and who is kept out? These last works rise to the challenge of concluding a creative practice that Anderson has returned to for almost two decades. In coming back to this space again and again, he creates a striking commentary on the passage of time inside and outside the painted space. Walking through space and time in the barbershop with Anderson is a quiet marvel.