Ernest “Ernie” Eugene Barnes Jr. was considered to be one of the leading artists in the world. He is popularly known for his portrait titled “Sugar Shack” which was featured in the 1970s sitcom, Good Times. His artistic expressions create uniqueness and imaginative experiences in African American culture. His interest in painting was sparked while browsing through art books when he accompanied his mother to work. He began painting while he attended North Carolina College which is now North Carolina Central University. Aside from being a talented artist, he was also an incredible football player. He went on to play for five years in the NFL and decided to quit to pursue painting full-time. Barnes credits his college art instructor, Ed Wilson, for laying the foundation in his development as an artist. Wilson was a sculptor who instructed Barnes to paint from his own life experiences.
“He made me conscious of the fact that the artist who is useful to America is one who studies his own life and records it through the medium of art, manners and customs of his own experiences.”( Powell). Most of Earnest’s artwork depicts his view of African American culture and his love for athletics. His paintings also reflect his commitment towards racial and ethnic harmony. During interviews and personal experiences, Barnes spoke about his experience as a football player very negatively. In interviews and in personal appearances, Barnes spoke about how he hated the violence and physical aggression of the sport. However, his years as an athlete gave him unique, and in-depth perceptions. With the help of Wilson, Barnes was able to focus on what his body felt like in movement.
With that inward discovery, Barnes realized to pay attention to what his body felt like in movement. Within that elongation, Barnes realized there’s a certain pride he receives when his body is elongated and there’s an excitement when his body moves on the field. That same attitude of movement is the expression Barnes went on to depict in his paintings. “I hate to think had I not played sports what my work would look like.”(Frank) Mannerism is characterized by heightened colors, sharpened and distorted perspectives, elongated human bodies, extravagant human gestures, all bathed in contrasts of light and shadow. (Frank) This new way of painting and sculpting derived from the styles of Raphael and Michaelangelo. Barnes incorporated the techniques and styles of Mannerism, and thus created Neo-Mannerism. Both Mannerism and Neo-Mannerism are depicted in his paintings, symbolizing high levels of intensity. Through his own personal life experiences, Barnes eloquently told stories of two elements of his life: scholastics and athletics.
The themes of athletics and ethnic life in the South are depicted in the painting “High Aspirations.” A young black male practices basketball shots by himself; not using a real basketball goal, but instead a fruit/vegetable basket with the bottom knocked out. The pale yellow sky with tiny hints of pale green emphasize the lifelessness and barrenness of the setting. The young player leapt into the air, arms elongated, “slam dunked” the ball into the basket. The boy’s arm also is magnificently exaggerated. The arm is reaching upward, which exhibits a sense of power and ambition; it’s saying that the young boy can achieve anything he attempts to aspire. The picture embodies all of the assets of Mannerism; extravagantly elongated body and limbs, the sinuous line of the body as it reaches towards the basket, the use of space to emphasize that the character is isolated opens the onlooker’s eyes to the intense effort he is placing towards the putting the ball into the basket.
Another painting is that of “Olympic Neighborhood games, which captured the scene of the Olympics, the Coliseum as the background, topped by the Olympic flame, and lastly a sky full of decorative balloons. Activities depicted in this painting are basketball, racing, cards, and jumping, volleyball, and cooking. These activities exemplify a sense of genuineness and talent. The “Olympic Neighborhood Games” is also a connection between the two general elements Ernie Barnes associates his paintings with: sports and scenes of everyday life. The “Sugar Shack”, a personal favorite, was created in the early 1970s. It gained international popularity when it was used on the Good Times television series. According to Barnes, he created the original version of Sugar Shack after reflecting upon his childhood, during which he was not “able to go to a dance.”( Hurd). In a 2008 interview, Barnes said, “Sugar Shack is a recollection of a childhood experience. It was the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance. The painting transmits rhythm so the experience is re-created in the person viewing to show that African-Americans utilize rhythm as a way of resolving physical tension.”
The atmosphere is full of energy, but the shack itself, the room, and the staircase are all basic horizontals and verticals. It is the people who are all moving to the jazz, not really the shack itself. The movement and flow of the bodies consist of various gestures, postures, and poses. The perfectly controlled lighting and the elaborate poses of the elongated figures are the epitome of Mannerism. The exuberant characters in the “Sugar Shack” were taken out of themselves and traveled to an elevated, more intensified life experience by the spirit of jazz. Another theme that exemplifies the style of Mannerism is the attentive detail to the female anatomy. In general, the female body is attractive in and of itself. The most significant position in the “Sugar Shack” painting is a woman in white located downstage center. She is dancing in the nightclub, holding her skirt almost to her private area, unconsciously, just mesmerized by the flow of the music.
There is obviously nothing between her full breasts and the thin material of her gown. Her arms are curved upward, lending a meaningful point to her arching fingers. Light and dark shades cover the broad expansion of her hips, thighs, and rear. Her slender ankles and swelling calves are accented by the light on the floor behind her. She is wearing high heels, which especially in motion, boasts the general sensuality of the female form. As a young boy, Ernie was intrigued and captivated by the artwork of such masters as Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Rubens, and Michelangelo. Perhaps Barnes’s work is must comparable to Michelangelo. Michelangelo was the primary inspiration of his style of painting, print making, sculpture, and even architecture that became known as Mannerism.
The name Mannerism originated from art meaning “in the manner of, and the manner who Barnes most imitated was Michelangelo. The most rigorous painting project completed by Barnes was commissioned by Sylvester Stallone, film maker who created and played fictional character Rocky Balboa, world heavyweight champ who rose through the ranks of professional boxing. This single painting was instrumental in Barnes’s growth because it was the first time he used a myth to paint as a subject.
Both Michelangelo and Barnes made their major accomplishments in art by painting mythical subjects. Michelangelo painted the figure groups of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling; a vital part of the Christian myth, and Barnes by painting the figure groups of the American myth of heavyweight boxer Rocky Balboa. Ernie Barnes’ view of African American lifestyles, his continued love for sports, and his commitment towards racial and ethnic equality reflect why he is one of the most collected artists in the world. Like all original art, the art of Ernie Barnes has sprung from his encounter with life experiences, not from his idea of what art should feel or look like. All of the motions, bodies, shapes and colors depicted in the work of Ernie Barnes allow us to become for a moment, ourselves. Art cannot give us more.