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

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