Art and Music: Some Thoughts on Sam 'Neek' Barrett's Exhibition at Trinity Centre
By Mahalia Curtis-Lundberg
Sam Barrett, better known under his alias Neek, forms one half of Kahn & Neek and Gorgon Sound, musical duos famed for their grime and dubstep productions. Yet unbeknown to many, Neek studied fine art painting in Brighton and continues his artistic practice alongside his music career. I visited his most recent exhibition held at Trinity Centre in St Philips, Bristol, and interviewed him about his music and art and the links between them.
TRIP 2 was comprised of monochrome canvases, some small-scale and some large, which depicted recurring imagery and abstract patterns; crosses, triple-pronged forks, bones or knives were outlined in a thick, bold painterly line, forming at times a sort of landscape and at others a more categorical formation of objects. The work seemed to have an almost child-like or primitive quality to it, and Sam’s style reminded me of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring; indeed, when I asked him about his artistic influences he said both were great inspirations for him. Since seeing a Haring exhibition in Sydney when he was nine Sam has been a lifelong fan, and he discovered Basquiat when studying at university. His favourite painter, however, is Philip Guston, particularly his later figurative work. Commenting ‘I’m still excited every time I find one of his paintings in any museum I visit’, Guston’s thread of influence visibly runs through some of the work in TRIP 2, coming into fruition through the cartoonish lines and stylised depiction of domestic objects.
With no labels delineating the intention or theme of Sam’s work, I was curious what the imagery symbolised and meant to him. This exhibition formed the second instalment of Sam’s TRIP series, the last one being held in Idle Hands record shop, and he described the overarching theme of the series as ‘an imagined journey’ which explores a world found inside his head: ‘partly dreamt, partly invented landscapes, interiors, signs and objects found along the way’. Sam explained his use of repetition throughout the exhibition, with certain motifs reappearing throughout the room, saying ‘I have always used repeated symbols throughout my work as a sort of language and way to link different paintings even if their stories are not the same’. The fork image in particular stood out to me, and the artist explained that it 'can be a trident, pitchfork, tree, cactus or figure depending on the context of the rest of the image’. This element of repetition certainly linked the exhibition series together as a whole unit of work, and Sam likened this to the same way brands use a logo to make it stick in your head, a comment that seemed pertinent considering his use of the Nike logo in previous work.
Displayed in the airy upstairs room of Trinity Centre, a former church now designated a grade II listed building, the exhibition venue complimented the work itself. Neek’s monochrome canvases were lit up by huge latticed archway windows, and it was these big windows and scale of the space that drew him to exhibiting there, saying ‘it's just not the sort of space you get to use everyday’. As an intrinsic part of the Bristol community and a club night venue, the building had special significance for Sam who grew up going to events there; he said ‘when I was asked if I wanted to use the upstairs to show some work I jumped at the chance’. In the final display the room was awash with natural light, and the works were set against the stone church walls themselves, creating a tranquil space. A small postcard-size series was arranged linearly and ran the length of the room, yet the most striking was the two larger scale pieces arranged on either side of the main window, almost as positive and negative versions of one another. The subject of his paintings was also pertinent to the space, with his inclusion of images of the crucifix and church-like buildings flashing back to ‘the forced Catholicism I experienced as school’.
What struck me as interesting about Sam’s artistic practice initially was his parallel career as a musician. Sam commented that music has definitely inspired art work in the past, for example one of his shows in 2010 was titled after a Grime lyric and many of the paintings were titled the same way. Music and art have always been something that Sam has pursued simultaneously; he described how ‘I always loved drawing as a kid, my mum would leave me with some paper and pencils and I would be happy for hours on my own’, and that music was also a massive part of him growing up. He got into DJing at the same time as he started an art and design course at college, and so has pursued the two relatively seriously for the same amount of time, disclosing that ‘I guess they both were things that made me happy and that’s why I've pursued both’. Neek studied fine art at Brighton university but it was when he moved back to Bristol that he started exhibiting independently at his friend’s shop. He discussed how as he got more into music production, his art took a back seat for a while, although he always kept a studio and kept designing, drawing and painting. Then in 2015 he Sam did a collaborative pop-up show with Joshua Hughes-Games, titled ‘Pop Pop Blasphemy- The Second Coming’ and featuring prints and zines. This, he comments, got him back into exhibiting and since then he’s tried to keep it up alongside music projects in the last few years, although nowadays he uses both as ‘a break from the other, as music is now my job and painting is my hobby and time away from it’. Yet despite this partial divide between his art and music, one still perhaps wouldn’t be the way it is without the other. In fact, the pursuit of art and music and as parallel creative outlets is not a rarity and exploration of their connections is extensive, with Kandinsky naming artworks after musical terms, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth being an artist and curator and Bob Dylan is now also revered for his paintings, to name a few.
Sam has lived in both Bristol and Brighton, a familiar B2B trajectory between two cities which share similar vibes and house thriving art and music scenes. Although Bristol is far bigger, Brighton offers a lot of opportunities for its size, and Sam commented that ‘both are great places to live and be a creative for sure’, with the music scene in both metropolises being pretty easy to figure out. He notes that music wise ‘I think there are enough clubs and underground scene in each that you can pretty much do what you want and people will come along’; indeed, the creative freedom offered by intimate venues which welcome lesser known musicians to play and promote themselves contributes to the close-knit community feel of the Bristol music scene. Crofters, Cosies, Trinity itself, Black Swan, Love Inn, Attic Bar and Exchange are just a few of the venues which, while also hosting larger names, are vital to the flourishing of upcoming artists within a diverse range of genres. Neek himself started his own grime, reggae and dubstep club night in 2006, The Sureskank Convention, to promote the sounds his friends were all playing at the time. He’s now also a member of the Young Echo collective, and him and Kahn are co-owners of their own label, Bandulu Records.
Art wise, Sam found navigating both Bristol and Brighton a bit harder; while opportunities arose through the university, he never really pursued exhibitions outside of that. In Bristol, he has mainly put on independent shows and been part of only a few collaborative or group exhibitions, and these have been ‘all very DIY and generally not in traditional gallery spaces’. He says, ‘I’m sure there is an art scene in Bristol, I am just an outsider to it’; certainly, building a name for yourself in any field takes time and networking, but just like the array of small music venues in Bristol, there are a number of smaller galleries or exhibiting spaces, including Centrespace Studios, Hamilton House gallery, 123 Space and The Island, which welcome upcoming artists and encourage curatorial creativity. There are also opportunities to get involved with larger galleries like Spike Island or Arnolfini through artist residencies, associate programmes and other projects or events. However, part of TRIP 2’s appeal did seem to be its display in the non-traditional gallery space, a music venue that seemed fitting to the nature of Neek’s work.
In terms of new artwork, the potential for a TRIP 3 exhibition is a possibility, Sam states, but for now he feels as if he’s going in a new direction and may revisit ideas from TRIP in the future. Always drawing and painting, he plans to carry on producing work until he has enough for another show, hopefully next summer, saying ‘I have thought about making some huge works but will need to find a new studio and the right space to show them in’. Whatever he comes up with I’m sure will be exciting for the next step of his artistic career. For now, visiting TRIP 2 and hearing Sam’s answers to my questions has been a fascinating reflection not only on his own music and art, but also the creative scene in Bristol and Brighton, two major creative hubs.