Malena Barnhart, a Tempe-based artist who uses quirky materials like children’s stickers and party favors, looks for new ways to explore the serial obsessions that drive her creative practice.
On a tree outside Malena Barnhart’s home studio in Tempe, Arizona, long strands of children’s stickers wrapped around its branches hint at some of the quirkier materials she uses in her art practice.
A self-described feminist artist, Barnhart explores gender norms, enculturation, and societal expectations through found objects such as stickers, party favors, and YouTube videos.
Walking through the front door, several artworks come into view. There’s a vertical block with text referencing a local artist accused of sexual assault, and a life-sized inflated sex doll covered in pink stickers, which was censored during an early 2018 art show in Phoenix.
Another room serves as her studio, where a slick white work surface is dotted with colorful sculptures made with party favors such as penis straws. The work area also includes mason jars filled with tiny plastic babies.
During a mid-October studio visit, Southwest Contemporary talked with Barnhart about the ongoing evolution of her art practice.
Lynn Trimble: You’re surrounded by your own artwork, which makes me wonder whether there was ever a time that making things didn’t consume you.
Malena Barnhart: I always had art tendencies, but I was never a natural drawer, so I figured “why would I do art?” I loved using disposable cameras when I was a kid, but I didn’t take an art class until college. I moved between a lot of disciplines, and it took a long time for me to actually self-identify as an artist. I thought people like me didn’t become artists, but I’ve always been driven to make things.
How did you decide to use children’s stickers in your work?
I like to work with things that I love but also feel repelled by. I love stumbling on different stickers and obsessing over their colors and designs, but I’m also horrified at what they teach children about who they should be and what the world is like.
So, what types of work have you made using stickers?
I’ve done wall installations of large sticker chains, and shown small sticker-on-paper pieces with designs like animal traps, using seemingly innocent materials to address darker themes like misogyny.
Tell me about some of the other things you’ve worked with.
I did a solo exhibition called He Said/She Said at eye lounge in 2018. Along one wall, I installed rows of vinyl text with names of men accused of sexual misconduct, including Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, Bill Clinton, and Bill Cosby.
For a group exhibition in a Tempe gallery, I created an installation that looked like a young girl’s bedroom where visitors could sit on a bed surrounded by teen idol posters to watch video works in the space.
I’ve also done several collaborative works, including videos that manipulate the faces of famous men facing sexual abuse allegations and a sculpture with an orange-hued upright palm that juts out of a gallery wall at crotch level as if it’s poised to grab something.
It looks like you’re shifting to different materials and ideas at this point.
I get serially obsessed with things, and I tend to use them over and over again until I feel like I’m pretty much done with them. Now I’m working with party favors for things like baby showers and gender reveal parties—incorporating them into sculptural pieces.
I’m also breaking down and reworking an existing piece, adding in more beer-pong eyeballs that look like breasts and building this web up into a much larger installation for a collaboration with a Phoenix-based choreographer and dancer.
I really want to do something immersive that’s related to the body and explores the feeling of being trapped.
How has the pandemic impacted your work?
I went nearly a year without making anything after my grandmother died, which is really the only time I’ve done that. That experience just broke me. I basically spent a year drawing lines with colored pencils on black paper that covered one of my studio walls.
But I still read obsessively about things that interest me, like capitalism and Christian fundamentalism. The personal and political are always intermingled in my work, but I’m not sure where I want to go from here. My self-worth is tied up in doing art, so I really hate the in-between times when I’m not constantly making things.
It sounds like you’re at a transition point.
I’m wondering whether what I’ve been addressing in my art is what matters most right now, whether it still has real value. I really have to feel uncomfortable to get to the next thing, although sometimes I’m led by the materials.
Often, I research a topic, then realize it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. For me, art is really an exercise in empathy training. It makes me more empathetic, and I hope that’s how it impacts the people who see it.