Ironically (but surely not accidentally) it is this attention to minutiae, this excruciating realism, which makes her work seem abstract. Examined so forensically, the most quotidian objects become totally unrecognisable, and this is where the phenomenon of the uncanny enters the equation. The ‘uncanny’ is evoked when the familiar is made to seem unfamiliar, and provokes a sinister feeling and an unease in the viewer.
Anna Barriball at Frith Street's Golden Square
Ironically (but surely not accidentally) it is this attention to minutiae, this excruciating realism, which makes her work seem abstract.
Anna Barriball’s practice is centred around ‘drawing’, and yet the results of her work hover somewhere between that and sculpture. Typically, Barriball begins with the most overlooked portions of the physical world which constitute our immediate environment – door panels, window frames – and painstakingly traces their surfaces, producing incredibly accurate renderings of every detail.
In the first room, on the front wall, is ‘Blinds’. Here, Barriball has assembled strips of paper – painted with white ink on the front, coloured with fluorescent pencil on the back – to represent the familiar sight of light flooding through the slats of venetian blinds. The labour of colouring the back of the strips is almost hidden due to how the piece is assembled, and yet the impression of colour and light is profoundly effective. It implies an element of invisibility – which seems to interest Barriball as much as visibility. A whole world is hidden but hinted at behind the ‘blinds’ which suggest a window but, we know, only cover a wall.
Barriball frustrates our desire to peer ‘through’, instead insisting that we peer ‘at’ the medium itself.
Barriball has hit on a neat conceit: the parallel of windows and hanging pictures, which are normally positioned at the same height on a wall, whose frames are a similar size, which each feature a layer of glass and, perhaps most crucially, which we expect to reveal a vista/landscape/scene beyond. The exhibition’s largest work is based on the experience of peering through a window at night, and, just as with ‘Blinds’ discussed above, Barriball frustrates our desire to peer ‘through’, instead insisting that we peer ‘at’ the medium itself.
My first impression of ‘Night Window With Leaves’ is one of depth, which is perhaps called up by the layering of materials which the artist has used to create it. Black pigment is applied to thin paper – necessarily warping a little, considering its fragility and heavy processing – which is then placed over patterned glass and covered with wax picture-varnish. The result is of a slightly reflective surface imposed over the paper behind the glass, and the embellishments added by reflections necessarily change depending on the viewer’s position in the room. This interaction of the work with its setting frustrates our desire to peer more closely and understand precisely what we’re seeing, or indeed what lies behind it.
‘Night Window With Leaves’ uses the light in the space in which it’s exhibited to insinuate a space beyond its own, whereas ‘Under Stairs Door’ uses the same trick as ‘Blinds’ to imply illumination from behind.
The more of Barriball’s work you see, the more you understand its reliance on light. ‘Night Window With Leaves’ uses the light in the space in which it’s exhibited to insinuate a space beyond its own, whereas ‘Under Stairs Door’ uses the same trick as ‘Blinds’ to imply illumination from behind. The back of the paper is covered with fluorescent colour which makes the outline glow slightly, an unfamiliar shape when isolated from its original context. The implication of something beyond, behind, with ‘Under Stairs Door’ is more sinister than in Barriball’s other works because the space it represents the boundary to isn’t one within which we expect activity or light. Who is there? What can’t I see?
‘New Works’ by Anna Barriball is both slick and uneasy, conceptually simple and complex, her subjects familiar and alien. It’s an exhibition I enjoyed a lot - especially in retrospect, having researched the artist’s process and philosophical preoccupations. See it for yourself at Frith Street’s Golden Square gallery before May 7th.