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Kitschy, Kitschy Cool

With a dremel saw and a paintbrush, Barnaby Barford turns flea market ceramics into sharp-witted social commentary.

To reach Barnaby Barford's North London home from the city, you take the train from Liverpool Street out past boozy, rough areas to the greener, open spaces of Higham's Park. From the station it's a short walk through a nondescript neighborhood—pleasant but not posh—to the typical Victorian terrace house Barford recently bought with his fiancée. It's all perfectly ordinary. Until you enter his studio.

Inside, hundreds of kitschy ceramic figurines line the floor-to-ceiling shelves. There are birds and bears and fairy-tale bunnies, Age of Enlightenment aristocrats, and Kama Sutra couples in amorous poses. Closer inspection reveals that some of them are not right. Is that woman pushing a poodle in her pram? And why is that fox hunter wearing rabbit ears and riding a hound? What are those Chanel Cs doing on an 18th-century gown? It's as if some mischievous prankster had gotten into Granny's ceramics cabinet and crossbred her treasures, leaving behind seamless Frankensteins in brightly colored pastiche.

An assemblage artist with a sardonic wit, Barford works with figurines and other ceramics he buys from charity shops, yard sales, flea markets, and, often, eBay. "Basically, I cut up existing pieces with a dremel tool or paint them or both, and reconfigure them according to my ideas," the 29-year-old artist explains. He usually gives them arch names such as It's OK, He's Rich, a 2004 work featuring two posh ladies conversing atop a white platter, hazarding sideways glances at a gentleman who is impeccably dressed but, as it happens, has a monkey's head. All sorts of flaws can be overlooked in a person, Barford reminds us, if he has enough money.

"Each of my pieces means a different thing, but generally I'm dealing with social issues," he says. "Last year I did quite a lot on branding and clothing. This year I suppose I've been more interested in cloning—and other weird medical stuff."

Barford's work bridges the increasingly overlapping worlds of art, design, and craft, and he has been gaining attention in all three. Last December London dealer David Gill highlighted Barford's work at the Design Miami fair, held at the same time as Art Basel Miami Beach. Prices ranged from $5,000 for individual figures to $25,000 for a chandelier covered in animals and cherubs. Everything sold. "People were fighting over the pieces," says Gill, who represents Barford. "These were very good collectors as well as respected museums."

This fall Gill is staging an exhibition of Barford's new work during the Frieze Art Fair, London's big contemporary art bash, in mid-October. When I visited, Barford was preparing for the show. He said that "there will be some 'shire horse cosmonauts,' a King Kong piece, and some bird pieces" but was unsure what else. At the same time he has been working on a possible project for Nymphenburg—it would be his second for the 260-year-old German porcelain company—and he is finishing up a wedding-themed commission for Swarovski that will be unveiled early next year.

It's tempting to compare Barford with Grayson Perry, the Turner Prize–winning artist who paints racy imagery on ceramic pots and also famously dresses up in women's clothing as a female alter ego. While Barford does have a subversive streak, he lacks Perry's outwardly transgressive personality, and his works are more humorous. Interestingly, both had early shows with Gill, who is known primarily as a design dealer, and both have managed to bust out of the craft-design ghetto. "Barnaby is really a conceptual artist who happens to use ceramics as his language," Gill says. "His pieces have wit and punch and a definite contemporary spin."

Born in 1977, Barford was raised in the hills of Surrey, in the picturesque town of Dorking, renowned for its antiques shops. Not that he spent much time in them. "I wasn't interested in figurines back then," he explains. "My stepfather had a few, but we weren't allowed to touch them." He was keen on drawing, however, and he loved to make up stories—a trait that comes through in his art. "I have a hyper imagination," he says. "I've always liked altering things and creating new situations."

For his 2004 piece Nativity, Barford created his own, decidedly idiosyncratic staging of the New Testament tale. There's an attendant donkey in all-white finery, three wise men dressed like Baroque courtiers, palm trees with tops made from cut-up blue-and-white bowls—all placed on individual plates and pedestals. Barford reworked the theme later in a smaller work, The Chav Nativity. "Chav" is an English bit of slang akin to "white trash" but with designer labels and jewelry. In this version Joseph sports a Burberry hat and scarf, while baby Jesus rests on the Union Jack. It's Barford, with his shrewd sense of humor, reimagining the greatest story ever told.

Barford's fascination with pottery began during an undergraduate term in Faenza, Italy—where they've been making exquisite majolica since the Renaissance. It was there that he honed his considerable technical skills with ceramics (and met his fiancée, Valeria Miglioli, a toy designer). Afterward he returned to do his master's at the Royal College of Art, a school known for its conceptual bent. He continued working with ceramics but began injecting his pieces with the irreverent wit that has become his trademark.

Barford says he rarely remembers where he picks up individual ceramics or what period they're from—most are of nominal value. To keep himself well stocked, he enlists the help of family. While I was there, the phone rang: "It's my mum," he mouthed over the receiver. Apparently she had found a cache of child figurines. Barford instructed her to buy. "Part of what I love about ceramics," he said after hanging up, "is how ordinary they are, and how permanent. Even if you're not aware of it, you interact with ceramics every day—from your toilet to your coffee cup. And it hangs around forever. Some of our earliest artifacts are ceramic pots."

One wonders what future civilizations might make of a 2006 piece that features the body of a slim female—wearing a pink dress and fur stole, exuding old- Hollywood glamour—with a dog's head. She gazes at herself, hips swiveled, in a large mirror. It's titled You Sexy Bitch.

In addition to his one-offs, Barford has collaborated with German designer André Klauser on several frolicsome products for Thorsten Van Elten, the London decor impresario. Their Conversation cushion is stuffed with Tyvek strips printed with clever icebreaking questions, which can be plucked through slits in the fabric as needed. And Barford's first project for Nymphenburg, last year, was a set of 14 hand-painted plates called the Global Service. "They appear abstract if you look at just one," the artist explains, "but together they form a map of the world." He likes to imagine the plates sparking conversation at a dinner party as guests identify landmasses under their food ("Hey, I've got the tip of Africa!").

These commercial projects are secondary for Barford, who is taking his art in a new direction by casting his ceramics in animated films. The British arts council and Channel 4 just commissioned him to create a four-minute short. "One of my ideas is to do a tale of tragic love," says the artist, "in which a cheap figurine and an expensive one fall for each other in an antiques shop." In other words, a classic love story—with a signature Barford twist.

Buying Barford

David Gill Galleries

Gill is staging a show of Barford's new work in October to coincide with the Frieze Art Fair and will bring a selection of pieces to Design Miami in December. 60 Fulham Rd., London; 44-207/589-5946

Clara Scremini Gallery

The artist will be showing new ceramic works at his first solo exhibition in France in early 2008. 99 Rue Quincampoix, Paris; 33-1/48-04-32-42

Thorsten Van Elten

The shop manufactures and sells several pieces Barford designed with André Klauser and will unveil a new red-and-white map-pattern rug by him this month. 22 Warren St., London; 44-207/388-8008; thorstenvanelten.com

Nymphenburg

Barford's 14-plate Global Service, available in green, beige, or turquoise (editions of 25 in each color), can be ordered from the firm's U.S. showroom. 470 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago; 312-421-3500; nymphenburgusa.com

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