“Break the Cycle” is an acrylic black swoop against a swatch of crimson. It also lives on a computer screen. That’s because it’s an NFT, a piece of digital art. Malibu-based artist Tyler “enso” Barnett is auctioning it off online; bidding started in mid-April at 100 Ethereum (a type of cryptocurrency), and as of press time had reached nearly $74,000, or 18 Ethereum.
The acronym NFT stands for “nonfungible token.” NFTs are units of data that allow for the selling and trading of things online. The token’s value derives from the fact that each NFT “is proven to be a single point in history,” Barnett said. “Once you create an NFT, that’s it, and once you sell it, that price is secured in the blockchain forever. It sets the value for an artist.”
NFTs emerged as the artist was getting into cryptocurrency trading during the pandemic; at the same time, he was confronted with the challenge of trying to sell online. The NFTs he offers are images of his paintings animated to look as if they were glitching.
Barnett plans to donate the proceeds from the sale of “Break the Cycle” to the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), which helps Asian Americans through programs such as immigration workshops where immigrants can go for guidance through the naturalization process. The auction is still live.
The “cycle” Barnett refers to in his painting’s title is the cycle of racism against Asians. The artist, who was raised Jewish and is now a practicing Buddhist, said he has always felt connected to the Asian community, having studied Japanese language and film for years and having traveled widely through China and Japan.
He also studied (via email correspondence) under a Japanese master named Kazuo Takahashi, who is the authority on the Japanese symbol “enso,” a circle-like symbol which represents “the present moment,” according to Barnett. The enso shows up in nearly all of Barnett’s paintings; Barnett said that before him, no one had ever done it in acrylic paint.
Barnett’s journey to becoming an artist was a long one. He grew up in a small house in Canoga Park. During those years, Malibu’s beaches were his special place.
Later in life, Barnett dropped out of community college to attend film school, but finding himself with “negative $30,” he got into entrepreneurship and PR, growing his business into a prominent marketing firm specializing in millennial marketing. His background in graphic design and social media was key in helping him find success selling NFTs so quickly. Now 37, he lives in Calabasas with his wife and two daughters, but he keeps his studio out in Malibu, fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming part of the community. He’s since used his art to raise money for causes such as the children’s hospital, the homeless and now AAAJ.
He has also used it to advocate for those with bipolar disorder, which he himself has lived with for decades. The artist said he is given to bouts of hypomania where he can paint for 15 hours straight; the flip side of that is crippling depression where he becomes so exhausted he cannot leave his house.
The enso symbol, in particular, forces him to be present, focusing on completing a perfect circle.
That’s because it takes both parts of your brain, the mathematical part and the artistic part, the left and the right side, Barnett explained.
“No one can do a perfect circle unless you try for years … That skill is very important to someone like me whose thoughts don’t ever turn off,” he said.
His gallery space, which sits in a PCH strip mall near Nobu, mimics his mind, too, he said.
Connected to the gallery via a small room strewn with cushions lit red is Barnett’s studio, which features a massive massage chair, a shower where the artist likes to meditate and, of course, massive canvases alight with acrylic paint and covered in resin, which means visitors can touch the ridges of his artwork.
“One half is business, the other half is where I create everything,” Barnett described during the short studio tour.
The effect should be assaultive and overwhelming—the walls busy with bursts of color, Kanye West music pounding one room over—but it’s not. It’s a sanctuary.
The star of the space is a Samsung art screen, upon which Barnett displays his NFTs.
Anyone interested can bid on “Break the Cycle” at bit.ly/ensoBreakTheCycle.