At 600 feet in length and 40 feet in height, Brian Barneclo’s mural is San Francisco’s largest — an epic work that snakes its way around the Caltrain tracks, and tells a story of the interconnectedness of “systems” that link polar bears to humans to energy grids to you-name-it. It’s all there on Barneclo’s giant wall, which he orchestrated in 2011 after three years of negotiating with city agencies, and three years of raising the $50,000 it cost to make.
The time and energy that went into preparing Systems far exceeded the time and energy it took to paint it (a mere 10 days). When Barneclo first saw the wall, the rear of an apartment complex, he thought,
“Whoa — someone’s going to paint that, and I think it should be me.”
“When I was doing that project, I was so focused, because it took three years to get permission, and funding, and rally up this whole thing and create something out of nothing — that in a lot of ways, it felt very much like a stunt, like an I’m-going-to-jump-this-Grand-Canyon kind of thing,” Barneclo tells SF Weekly. “I had help along the way, but I was spearheading the whole thing, and the achievement was getting the funding and the permission. Looking back, I’m really happy with it, [though] I’ve talked about updating it … [to] make it succinctly express … what I want to express in there.”
Influenced by hip-hop, jazz, the Beat generation, and other “counterculture traditions,” Barneclo produces pictorial mazes that are worlds within other worlds. And influenced by scientist Donella Meadows, who wrote the book Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Barneclo says, “The philosophy of interconnection and ‘systems thinking’ and understanding and perceiving the world in terms of systems – natural, manmade, and belief systems — is still very much at core with what I paint about. All my paintings have to do with order and chaos in a certain way.”
Last November, Barneclo completed a mural, Good Life, that greets passengers at the San Mateo Caltrain station, and — if asked — he hopes to do another mural farther south that extends his artistic vision along Caltrain’s tracks. It’s hard to top the scale of Systems, which Intersection for the Arts helped to sponsor. Dockers contributed $20,000 for Systems and featured Barneclo in a national TV ad that aired during the 2011 Super Bowl pregame show.
“I saw it on TV,” says Barneclo, who lives in the Excelsior district.
“It was weird to see myself on TV during Super Bowl day. It was exciting. But the thing about me is that I’m a really good painter — that’s what I enjoy doing — but I don’t have this promotional element to myself. I’m not a marketer. I’m more a creator. So when I started this huge, immense project, I didn’t have that built in.”
But Systems still found its way into the world, and still draws stares from people who take the train into San Francisco or otherwise happen to see Barneclo’s giant work as they drive or walk by.