In his Brooklyn studio on a late spring afternoon, Barnaby Furnas and two assistants are propping up a billboard-size canvas on sawhorses. The painting, an expanse of scarlet wavelike forms, takes up the better part of the room, requiring some careful negotiation to maneuver it into place. Titled The Parting of the Red Sea, it's one of a series of "flood" paintings that Furnas will unveil at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York on September 15.
For the 33-year-old artist, whose work often deals with themes of water and violence, the subject of this biblical tale is imperial hubris. "The Pharaoh foolishly followed the Israelites and destroyed his entire army," Furnas says. "God used wind to separate the sea. In my paintings I separate the sea with water."
Using techniques that call to mind action painting of the fifties, Furnas douses the surface with water and lets the paint drip down the canvas, which leans at a 45-degree tilt. He also moves the liquid around with a push broom to create huge brushstrokes. The resulting swaths of red feel bold, turbulent, weighty—as if he's addressing major events of the day, from the war in Iraq to Hurricane Katrina. "These are like history paintings dialed up to 2006," suggests Furnas, who also brings a consciousness of art history to his work. "I want to know, What does a blockbuster painting look like now? What shocks us today?"
Furnas is a fast-rising star in the art world, and it's no coincidence that Boesky—who also represents Rachel Feinstein, Takashi Murakami, and Sarah Sze—chose him to inaugurate her spacious new gallery, which was designed by Deborah Berke. But Furnas's recent, largely abstract works are a departure for the artist. He's known for his grisly Civil War battle scenes, graphic suicide portraits, and adrenaline-pumping images of rock concerts.
"It's gutsy to not rest on your laurels, to be pegged a figurative painter and then take the figure out of the work," says Boesky, who signed Furnas to her gallery when he was still in graduate school at Columbia. Though he included people in most of his earlier pieces, he always subverted their bodies in some way. "If I didn't want to draw a face or a hand, I'd blow it up," Furnas explains. The results were often glorious blood-splattering spectacles. "I'm a first-generation video gamer," he says.
The son of Quaker parents, Furnas grew up on the outskirts of Philadelphia, in a neighborhood hard-hit by the eighties crack epidemic. His elementary school of 4,000, he recalls, was built like a prison, with no windows. One of only a handful of white students, Furnas couldn't avoid sticking out with his fair skin, curly red hair, and peculiar name. He says, "I was always paranoid that something violent or cataclysmic would happen to me."
As an adolescent, Furnas found solace in art, drawing cartoonlike army men and war scenes. Later he would graduate to graffiti, which frequently got him into trouble with the police. "It was my way of finding a place in the hierarchy of hip-hop culture," he explains. Tagging subway cars and building façades would prepare him for working on oversize canvases. And he still relies on some of his former tools from the street, using markers to make the threadlike lines that are the foundation of his paintings and spray paint to create cobalt-blue skies.
He also spurts paint out of hypodermic needles, which he picks up at the drugstore. "You can't paint blood better than by squirting red through a syringe," says Furnas, who has long made the color dominant in his work. "It's hardwired into us to associate red with blood. It's visceral. It's a warning. It means Stop, danger, or you will be dealing with your own red."
The show at the Boesky gallery includes a group of Furnas's "voodoo revenge" portraits, works inspired by the vicious letters the French writer Antonin Artaud penned to his enemies while in a sanatorium during the forties. Furnas has a dossier of his own adversaries—bullies, muggers, collectors who bought his paintings at bargain prices when he was starting out only to resell later at auction for fat profits. One of his targets is a female collector, whom he depicts in an eighties power suit and desecrates with paint-soaked fingerprints, satanic symbols, and expletives in Gaelic. "I like the idea of revenge—it makes me feel good," he says, amused by his own nihilistic exuberance.
Prices for Furnas's new works start at $35,000 and run to around $150,000—up significantly from a few years ago but well below the staggering $396,800 that his 2003 painting Blown to Bits fetched at Sotheby's in May. "I'm uncomfortable with the whole auction world," Furnas says, even if his dealer has a more balanced view. "The auctions are good for us, but it puts a lot of pressure on the artists," says Boesky. "Every time they go to make a painting, they're thinking about the numbers."
Right now, however, as he circles the large canvas armed with a spray bottle, Furnas is thinking only about the color red.
Furnas's show runs September 15 to October 14. At 509 W. 24th St., New York; 212-680-9889; marianneboeskygallery.com.