An Interview with Tristan Barlow

by Nathan Mullins

Tristan Barlow is a painter from Brandon, Mississippi. He got his BFA from Southern Miss in 2012 before studying at the New York Studio School for Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture for a year. He is currently working on his MFA at the Slade School in London. Tristan has studied abroad in Cortona, Italy, been a Teaching Assistant with the Rome Art Program, held residencies at the Chautauqua Institute in New York State, the Vermont Studio Center, and was most recently the recipient of theRed Mansion Art Prize, which allowed him to study for a month in Beijing, China. His website can be found at:


Untitled (Fish or Cut Bait), 2014. Oil on linen. 86.6 x 63 in.
Untitled (Fish or Cut Bait), 2014. Oil on linen. 86.6 x 63 in.

Mississippi Modern: Your paintings have gotten much darker and more severe, both visually and content wise, over the last year. What are some of the ideas you’re working through right now in your paintings?

Tristan Barlow: Since moving to London, my paintings have taken a different turn. My influences changed as did the books I was reading. I began watching a lot of film and allowing film makers such as Michael Haneke, David Lynch, Lars von Tier, to work their way into my thinking. At the same time I was reading a book by Michel Tournier titled The Ogre, which deals with philosophically dark and sinister ideas and also has a mystical and metaphysical air. These are several factors that have pushed my paintings to become darker, though I don’t think it was a black and white decision. Rather, a process. There was an irresistible allure in this sort of dark space with bits of light shooting through it, elements that define the laws of physics or question the reality of things. The impossibility of these spaces is where I become interested: maybe these paintings are more about spaces for the mind than any real space. In the last couple of paintings things have changed again. Color has come back and there is a more graphic element. We will see where that takes me.

MS: Who are you listening to in the studio? What are you reading?

TB: Yesterday, I was listening to Johnny Greenwood. The day before it was Johnny Cash. And the three consecutive days before that, it was The Decemberists. I usually put something on repeat and may listen to one album 3 times in one day at the studio. After the first go, I don’t hear it anymore.

Reading probably influences my paintings more than anything else. I choose what I read carefully. Jorge Luis Borges has been a big one for me lately. His short stories from Labyrinths are incredible. I have also read a lot of Michel Tournier – The Ogre, The Fourth Wise Man. Recently I began reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Cormac McCarthy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Italo Calvino, and Flannery O’Connor are knocking around my studio as well.

Untitled, 2014. Oil on linen. 78.7 x 59.1 in.
Untitled, 2014. Oil on linen. 78.7 x 59.1 in.

MS: How’s London treating you?

TB: London is good. It’s a good place to live and work. It rains a lot and is cold, but once you get over that, there is a lot going on here.

MS: How is London different from Mississippi? How is it the same?

TB: London is huge. It is full of English people as well as a huge international bunch (my favorite part about it). It is mostly just straight up different. It is the same in that I have a back yard and have bonfires and drink beer with my Canadian flatmates. Canadian doesn’t sound like Mississippian, but they are the closest thing to Americans I have around here.

MS: Coffe or tea? Lager or Pimm’s?

TB: Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. And lots of it. There is also lots of Beer, of which I am usually inclined to drink Ale. When I am lucky I run into an American IPA.

MS: You’ve got access to a serious amount of art, old and new, in London. What are your three favorite works there right now?

TB: Favorites…. Hmm.. Ok, I’ll say:

  1. Piero Della Francesca – Nativity
  2. Anselm Kiefer (Retrospective at the Royal Academy) – Attic Drawings
  3. Assyrian relief sculptures commissioned by Nebuchadnezzar a long time ago

Untitled, 2014. Oil on linen. 74.8 x 59.1 in.
Untitled, 2014. Oil on linen. 74.8 x 59.1 in.

MS: You recently spent a month in Beijing. Can you talk a little bit about your experience there?

TB: Crazy. Bizarre. Big. Harrowing. Beijing has 22 million people. That is twice the size of New York or London. There is no real center to the place. It is a spread of huge buildings, tiny slums, hutong streets, babies shitting everywhere. There seemed to be no rules to the place. It was packed, loud, and full of everything. I thought my brain would explode on a couple of occasions. I managed to make quite a few drawings that I feel ok about. The food was excellent! Dumplings for days and so cheap you just ate whenever, whatever you pleased. I lived in a little “village” type of place and had a studio there. Dogs ran around. Everyone sweated. Most people there did not have running water in their houses. All in all it was a great thing to do. I am still trying to get my head around it, to be honest.

MS: What do you think you’ve gained from studying abroad for such an extended period of time?

TB: I think you learn more about yourself than anything else. You are constantly surrounded by people who are very much not like you in terms of culture, but that may be very much like you in other ways. I have gotten used to being someone who is situated on the outside of a culture looking in.

MS: From where you are, hopping a flight into Europe is relatively easy and cheap. Where has been your favorite place to visit?

TB: Well, so far I have been to Madrid, Rome, and Berlin. I think Berlin was the most interesting for me. I had been to Rome and Madrid before. It was my first time to Berlin and it was summer, so you could be outside. There seemed to be a great sense of life and art there. I wouldn’t mind going back. Next up is Vienna and Krakov.

Untitled (Burden of a Cloud), 2014. Oil on linen. 74.8 x 59.1 in.
Untitled (Burden of a Cloud), 2014. Oil on linen. 74.8 x 59.1 in.

All images courtesy of Tristan Barlow

Nathan Mullins

Nathan Mullins was born and raised in Clarksdale, MS. He has a BFA in Drawing and Painting from The University of Southern Mississippi and is currently working on his MFA in Studio Art at American University in Washington, DC. Nathan has previously studied in New York City; Berlin, Germany; and Cortona, Italy. His paintings have been featured in both domestic and international shows. - See more at: