Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Sally Barker: ‘Sticks and Stones’

Clare Nadal writes

Stack by Sally Barker
On a suitably grey and misty morning in March, Artistic Programme Manager David and I drove over the moors to Hebden Bridge to pay a studio visit to South Square Gallery’s next exhibiting artist, Sally Barker, praying that our failure to remember the trusted sat nav wouldn’t cause too much disaster.

I would like to take a moment to describe my experience of the journey, since I feel this is central to understanding Sally’s work…. ‘I find myself am amazed how quickly the green fields and hedgerows of Thornton are left behind and instead we find ourselves high up on eerie, mysterious moorland. It is a different world up here; we haven’t seen snow for weeks down in the valley but up here blocks of snow stubbornly remain, like some otherworldly relic. Then without warning, we suddenly find ourselves dropping sharply down into the steep narrow valley and suddenly we are back in civilisation, fallen down the rabbit hole into the centre of Hebden Bridge. Sally’s home lies up another hidden fork in the valley, again taking us away from civilisation. As we drive up the narrow road I am aware always of trees, dampness and rock, covered in moss and lichens.’

This constantly shifting world is the world Sally self-consciously engages with in her artwork, exploring the interplay of the built and natural environment and our relationship to the landscape around us. As she tells us, she regards her role as an artist “somewhere in between that of a scientist, farmer and gardener.”

As part of exploring human intervention in the natural landscape, Sally is interested in both how we cut into the environment and how we build onto it, physically pinning it down. Consequently much of her photographic work explores images of ruins on the nearby moors, in particular Top Withens, the famous ruin which is popularly thought to have inspired Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Contemporary Handmade Ruin at the Hushings by Sally Barker
Reservoirs also feature highly in both her photographic and sculptural work. Sally tells us that she is intrigued by the ability of both of these features to breach the divide between manmade and natural landscape feature. Reservoirs become assimilated into the landscape around them, eventually becoming a feature of beauty in their own right (such as the popular Ladybower, Derwent and Howden reservoirs in the Peak District), whilst ruins tend to become endowed with something of the sacred reverence of a holy relic.
The Ice and the Hole by Sally Barker
With such features as these present in her sculptural work, ideas of history, time and fragility are all evoked. Attached to the rough pieces of natural rock that Sally scavenges for in her local quarry are Greek-like columns made from ice and resin. Human presence is implied from the cast body parts she places in her sculptures. These body parts, in particular the delicate nipple flowers and cast heart, bring a sense of intimacy to these works; this is personal artistic expression that the viewer is privileged access to.     

Artmaking is a highly personal process for Sally, both informing and being informed by the course of her daily life. Her house is both home and studio space simultaneously. In her dining room-come-workshop space, dvds share home with sculptures, vases and architectural scaffolding structures sit side by side, and the piano and photographic prints battle for centre of attention. The artist’s studio is not some mysterious distanced and hidden entity, shut off in both physical and metaphorical zones of creative expression, but something integrated into everyday life.

As part of this, Sally continually scavenges for local organic raw and found materials for her sculptural work, often from her very garden. She is always keen to experiment, the process of making being integral to her work. Recently she has been using YouTube to learn how to knit with sheep’s wool and stitch pieces of stone together with steel wire.

Architectural elements are also important to Sally and have featured in much of her previous work and conceptual thinking. Having built The Sally Barker Gallery (2000), a small cardboard and polystyrene model which houses miniature versions of all of her artworks, made on a scale of 1:100, she now has widened her horizons to “world domination”. The Sally Barker Empire is to be the realisation of this aim, a project aimed at encouraging self-promotion and empowerment through architectural hijacking, annexing and the imposition of her sculpture, in model form.

The Empire so far consists of a mix of models, drawings, photographs and postcards: visions of galleries, studios and structures designed and built in Sally’s name to promote her work. Some of these are hi-jacked famous art institutions, subsumed into The Sally Barker Empire, such as Hi-Jack Tate Modern.
Hi-jack Tate Modern by Sally Barker
Sally describes this work as ‘sculpitechture, quite literally models which fuse architecture and sculpture. She is clear to emphasise that whilst this playful connection to architecture exists, her models inescapably remain sculptures ultimately. As she tells me, “I have no desire to ever have them built; they exist as tiny monuments to artistic vision. The intention is to offer total creative license, both with the models and with the ideas they potentially house.”

This exhibition will feature several of her ‘invisible building’ sculpitectures, architectural plan-like structures, made in three dimension out of natural grasses. Housed within are model scale figures, providing an almost utopian vision of a potential future in society and architecture.

Sally is keen for her exhibition to engage with its locality. To this end, she is creating a new body of work that critically engages with South Square Gallery’s stone heritage and history as a series of stonemasons’ cottages. Central to this will be a new photographic work of the famous Thornton Viaduct. For Sally, the viaduct exemplifies many of her conceptual ideas about landscape; rather than seeing it as simply a testimony to historic architecture, she sees it as humans stitching the two sides of the valley together with stone, a bid to negotiate and mark the landscape.

Following on from Villa by David McLeavy, which is currently showing in the gallery, Sally Barker’s exhibition continues South Square Gallery’s summer season of exploring contemporary art responding to space, landscape and habitation. During August and September, the gallery space will once again be offered as a live in studio for an artist to research and produce new work whilst engaging with the gallery visitors.

Sally Barker’s South Square Gallery exhibition opens on Friday 7 June and will run until 28 July 2013

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Introducing South Square Gallery’s Curatorial Traineeship Programme

Current Curatorial Trainee Clare Nadal writes

In February 2013 I began my ACE funded Curatorial Traineeship ran by South Square Gallery in partnership with the Hepworth Wakefield. The scheme aims to provide support for an aspiring curator by providing hands-on experience of developing and delivering South Square Gallery’s artistic programme, culminating in the opportunity to research and curate a show in the gallery. The trainee also has chance to undertake a placement with the Collections and Exhibitions team at the Hepworth Wakefield and gain experience of working on contemporary art exhibitions and/or museum collections in an organisation of international significance.

The scheme has been running since 2007 and has a proven success rate with trainees going on to secure employment within the arts sector or pursue further study. Trainee Stephen White secured a full-time job as an Assistant Curator at the Walker Gallery, Liverpool in 2008, whilst Elizabeth Holdsworth, trainee in 2011, has recently been awarded a place at the Royal College of Art to study Critical Writing in Art and Design. Most recent trainee Helen Thackray is soon to begin a job working as Community Programmer at Nottingham Contemporary.

Speaking about her experience of the traineeship, Helen said: “Working amongst the small team of staff and volunteers at South Square Gallery was a unique and hugely rewarding experience. The excellent balance of support and freedom offered by all of my colleagues has allowed me to take on responsibilities and explore my own interests and ideas, whilst always having the cushion of a team of professionals to give me advice and help where ever I needed it.”

My placement at The Hepworth Wakefield gave the invaluable opportunity to work in a large national gallery. Not only was I able to assist with the installation of exhibitions by artists such as Richard Long and Luke Fowler, I was also taught specific skills such as condition reporting and art handling."

With this in mind, I have taken time to reflect upon my first two months as Curatorial Trainee and the experiences I have gained. Look out for further updates from me in the forthcoming months!

Personal and Geographical Journeying

It was with a mixture of nerves and excitement that I boarded the Cross Country train from Sheffield to Leeds for the first time on the morning of Wednesday 25th February, a now highly familiar journey. There is a reason I have spoken of ‘Journeying’ in this blog title, for it seems that in the last two months I have undertaken so many different journeys and not just of the physical kind. Commuting to an unfamiliar city each week has become quite the adventure for me, one I have eagerly lapped up, desirous for change and challenges after months of soul destroying job hunting. Finally I have been able to join my fellow graduates in gaining the sought after ‘proper job’ and begin to engage in professional development within curatorial practice, meet other curators and artists, and build networks and contacts.

I am very much enjoying working in a rural gallery setting, being used to predominantly urban arts organisations, and thus it has provided me with the chance to observe the different practices adopted by the two. Escaping to the beautiful rural Thornton once a week has in itself become soul-southing, there is a reason why they call Yorkshire ‘God’s own country’.

One of the greatest things I have found about the traineeship is the level of importance of my role within the organisation. Though this initially seemed daunting, I have found it to be an invaluable experience. For the first time I have had a real key role and responsibility in decision making and managing the artistic programme, and my opinions are always very highly valued and considered. This has helped me to gain confidence to put forward suggestions in a very supportive environment.

I have had the opportunity to meet exhibiting artists David McLeavy, Sally Barker and Stuart Rushworth and discuss their work in detail, and from this produce interpretative materials and articles. This has not only given me the chance to engage with artworks at an in depth critical level, but also develop my writing style, considering issues of tone and audience. From this I have rediscovered my passion for writing, and have now taken responsibility for the South Square blog and am excited about developing ideas for future articles. I am also hoping to take my writing beyond the traineeship and think about blogging regularly and writing articles for local arts publications.

In February I was able to help co-curate the MA Visual Art students from Bradford College’s ‘Work in Progress’ show. From this I learnt about some of the issues involved in curating a group show as well as specific technical skills and theory of picture hanging. Since then I have also been involved with curating David McLeavy’s solo exhibition Villa, a show that in its very nature brings attention to the curatorial process. (See my previous blog for further discussion of this).

I also attended the February meeting of the Yorkshire Curators Group where I was able to meet both institution based and freelance curators from around the region and hear updates from a variety of galleries. As part of the meeting (held at Cartwright Hall) we were given walking tours of the current exhibitions by their respective curators. Being able to hear curators speak about developing shows and the curatorial decisions made was a brilliant opportunity for me. I hope to go to the next group meeting in May!

I am currently on the selection panel for selecting an artist for our summer residency, as well commissioning an artist to develop a body of work at South Square Gallery and the Bronte Parsonage. I have begun to review and update the gallery’s marketing contacts start building a comprehensive database in which to store these. I am excited to be beginning my placement at the Hepworth Wakefield in a few weeks when I shall be assisting with the de-install of the current Alice Channer, Linder and Jessica Jackson Hutchins exhibitions and the install of the new Haroon Mirza exhibition. I am looking forward to working in such a well renowned organisation and gaining new experiences and knowledge.