In each slice of The artists, T highlights a recent or little-known work by a black artist, accompanied by a few words from this artist putting the work in context. This week, we are interested in “2 Tone Barbershop” (2021), a painting by Marcus Brutus, whose next exhibition, “Inauguration trip,” opens March 31 at Harper’s Chelsea 512 in Manhattan.
Name: Marcus Brutus
Situated at: queens
Native: SilverSpring, Maryland.
Where and when did you do this work? I made it in my studio in Brooklyn in October 2021. I moved to New York in 2009 for school and fell in love with the city and Queens in particular.
Can you describe what happens at work? It represents the waiting room in a hair salon; that’s why there is this spiral hair salon pattern in the background. I started with a found image of the pattern behind the two gentlemen’s heads and chose their poses to somehow reflect that pattern. They both have their legs crossed – one of their expressions is less selfless than the other, but there is still synchronization. I named this painting “2 Tone Barbershop”, after a fictional barber shop I made up that references the two-tone music genre of the late 70s and 80s, because of this mirror. The music mixed punk and ska and the artists created a lot of really synchronized images, where guys and girls were all wearing very simple black suits and things. That’s where my head was going when I was putting it all together.
What inspired you to do this? Every day I collect images and screenshots, and watch documentaries and stock footage, and then live with those images for months. Then when I think about making a new array, I go back to my memory bank. My approach to painting is almost like that of a collagist, because there is no singular image to which I refer; there are all sorts of different elements that I pull from to create a cohesive image. What I used as a reference point for the faces I created here – this image had nothing to do with the one I used for the bodies they are attached to, or the scene in the background . Basically, I try to collect images that move me, anything that piques my interest, and overlay black figures on them to put all the things that interest me in one space.
I’ve always had paintings that are about the barbershop or barber shop – this is the first one that doesn’t depict someone being actively worked on but just references that environment. Most of the subjects of my paintings are imaginary characters that I try to make representative of a singular but collective experience – in reality they are not, because we have not all had the same experiences, but I try to find those scenes that first come to mind when you think of something most black people have experienced. So each painting is meant to represent a monolith of black life, which I combine with very bright, fluorescent colors to make things a bit more accessible.
What is a work of art in any medium that has changed your life? I would say “Malcolm X” by Spike Lee (1992). I watched it when I was 15, and it focused my interest on the black experience and history and learning about those things. Before that, I didn’t have a great understanding or interest in the subject, and opening my mind to that led me to become an artist. I point out that watching this film is the beginning of everything I do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.