Langford 120, North Melbourne, Australia
13 October–11 November 2012
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
A fifth project or series is the pièce de résistance for the new show, a vast wall installation 18 x 2.8 metres, evolved from the artist’s ongoing engagement with imagery of the everyday, cutouts, cut edges and large works made from many small components.
Cut it Out! It’s a Wonderful World; Resurrection in Melbourne (2012) (after Stanley Spencer) was created by relooking at paintings made in Paris in the early 1980s, abstracting the images, and converting them though a CAD application into a pattern for the final laser cutting. The multi-coloured 12,552-piece acrylic laser cut-out assemblage put together with the same number of imported pins stretching 18 metres along the longest wall in the gallery is in effect a giant jigsaw puzzle, where parts of the set are used to make a number of installation works. The work pays homage to Stanley Spencer’s, The Resurrection, Cookham (1924–26), 6 x 3 metres. Irene describes the question of scale:
“I found that I could never really make a middle-sized work. I either had to make small works or really large, and the idea of components … reflects on my entire childhood of studying a language [during 16 years of classical ballet] where one step moved into another step into another step into another step and every step had a different idea behind it.” The steps were not just mechanical movements but elements loaded with history and “when you melded the steps together it had to have a form of logic”.1
She admits that there was an element of risk, not being able to see the work until well into the installation.
Cut it out! It’s a wonderful world: Resurrection in Melbourne (2012), was created by tracings from early still-life paintings, which had been conceived as a celebration of quotidian experience. An exploration of faith in the minutiae of life, it is pitched against the complexities of global culture. That Barberis has pulled this together with so powerful and original a voice whilst caring for a terminally ill husband with the eventual consequences of his death, shows her unerring commitment both to art practice and a personal faith. Where her self-portraits inevitably reveal the extent of her loss, the Wonderful World works represent an acceptance of death as yet an essential pivotal experience of life, and indeed a belief in an afterlife. This is a challenging and generous project, inspired by grief but asserting unknowable aspects of life, the essential wonderment of life itself.
The Apocalypse in art history is presented as a hellish, end of the world scenario, although the Angers Tapestry (1377–82) is completed with an uplifting ending. She explains:
“I haven’t presented a hot, dramatic, figurative vision of Revelation which is what most people who have worked with Revelation, such as Dürer, John Martin [The Great Day of His Wrath] even Peter Booth have done – hot and destructive. The ways in which the Apocalypse is generally understood, and looked at, are horrific. I wanted to find another way. It’s worth noting that the alternative name of the last book of the Christian Bible is a word simply meaning the unveiling or revelation (of Jesus Christ) in its original Greek but in English, Apocalypse has acquired a primary definition of terminal catastrophe. In this case it refers to God’s ‘Last Judgment’, the end of this world and the end of time symbolically prophesied; though apocalypse is now colloquially used for any real or imagined disaster in which anger, hatred or indifference to the fate of others plays a part. Because all the disaster perspectives are focusing on the end, I wanted to focus on the fact that that book describes another beginning. It describes something beyond the end of what we know. I also wanted to have a female point of view in the way I was presenting work from the Apocalypse … My work is female work. It’s come from female sensibilities.”2
The female qualities of lateral thinking, an open approach when exploring the unknown are central to the work of Barberis:
“What I’ve hoped to do with my work, however long I’ve been practicing, is to keep it open-ended, to keep the ideas moving. I haven’t funnelled it into a product or into one line of engagement … I’m hoping that by the time I get to my end, I’ll have maybe four or five lineages of work that have real depth in them as well as serious laterality. I feel I haven’t been moved by fashions nor shifted from the ground I started with. The manifestations of those multiple lines of thinking will hopefully be fully ‘present’ and have resonance in my area of articulating the Apocalypse – that this will be, and is my female statement.”3
Dedicated to extending the status and recognition of drawing – drawing is any thing that moves between two points for Barberis – as pivotal in the visual arts, Irene Barberis’s work as we have seen extends to performative spatial drawing, the use of unorthodox materials, (such as silicone artists breath and luminescent filaments), the sewn line and large-scale installation. Perhaps the most formative experience at the age of 20 was a trip to New York in 1974, with her partner then, the minimalist artist Robert Hunter, who was exhibiting there. They stayed in the studio of Carl André, and met many artists including the pioneering artist of vast scale drawings and performative works, Sol Le Witt, who became her mentor and friend of 30 years. Barberis also encountered the work of Eva Hesse, Helen Frankenthaler, the Art Language group and Robert Ryman at first hand. The experience had a pivotal and lasting effect.
Barberis’s earliest influence was the kinetic process and experience of 16 years training in classical ballet. While Jackson Pollock’s action painting reflected the manner in which gesture and movement enabled a physicality that could liberate art, where process was deemed as important as the finished product, Barberis’s other great interest in the mid-70s were the early performances by Yvonne Rainer, and the links Barberis saw between drawing, movement and dance. Helen Frankenthaler’s pioneering use of colour, and her strong gestural drip works were of interest to Barberis as were the works of Eva Hesse, another inspiring woman artist. Barberis was drawn to her energetic yet enigmatic works where process and use of unorthodox materials (rubberized cheesecloth, latex) addressed key aesthetic and philosophical issues.
Hesse’s early work included many self-portraits and although she later became a sculptor, in her early twenties she drew prolifically: experimental work, full of possibilities. The innovative works in New York had a profound effect on Barberis, and on her return to Australia, she made her first pivotal and major work – 48 Pieces (1975–76). Utilising a structured process, though allowing for an intuitive painterly response, 48 Pieces was a fusion of everyday paraphernalia painted with striking colour, a reaction to the formalism of the New York Minimalist ideas, however and just as apparent in this work was the use of the minimal grid – the grid as absence. Barberis used the experience of the new conceptualists and applied it to expressive painting – a first in Australian feminist works.4
Gesture and physical involvement with the process provided a necessary clarity in the process of creating both figurative and abstract works, which would interact together, marking her signature format of the figurative (gestural/intuitive) alongside the abstract (architectural/structural). Apocalypse: Writings on the wall, is a hand-written wall text using white chalk on darkly painted walls, a word for word transcription from the Book of Revelation. Created in situ during an exhibition (in Brisbane) (King James I Authorised Version Bible in hand) the performance took three days and spanned 58 x 3 metres, like a vast billboard, and extended Barberis’s drawing practice, with a defiantly contemporary performance.
Seven histories into futures enabled Barberis’s long-standing work on the apocalypse, a synonym for doom and destruction, and art historical representations of it, to be tested for a 21st-century audience. The Book of Revelation abounds in visual imagery, having fascinated scholars and artists for centuries. Barberis makes reference to early Christian catacombs in Rome (100-200AD), mediaeval stained glass windows, monumental tapestries, 15th-century frescoes, prints and drawings. Medieval illuminated manuscripts have been integral to Barberis's visual code; drawings, notations and recordings made while the artist studied the original manuscripts at the British Museum, London the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris and the Piermont Morgan Library, New York. The Writings on the Wall (on canvas) (2012) work in the present exhibition is recast onto a deep blue canvas, forming a sombre and beautiful work at the beginning of the exhibition.
Barberis takes aspects of the 14th-century Angers Tapestry, the huge 90-panel medieval depiction of the Revelation and digitally reconfigures it. Separating details in the process, she employs the mass production method of poster printing – off-set printing, in a commercial studio that produces posters for rock concerts. Day-glo printing ink gives the “posters” street credibility, and an “of the masses” feel, an essential aspect of “the broadsheet” (in medieval mode), and in contrast to her 300 delicate works on tissue paper: beautifully presented in wooden boxes, akin to Illuminated Manuscripts and their bindings. It is interesting to note that Kiki Smith is also using the Angers Tapestry as a source for her work. It is timely to report that Kiki Smith’s exhibition at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in London, Behold, is running concurrently with Barberis’s in Melbourne5. They make an interesting comparison.
“Since the early 1980s, Smith has ‘used the body as metaphor, drawing upon myth, spirituality and narrative to consider the human condition, its strengths and its frailties’. More recently Smith’s work has been concerned with the interdependence of the natural world; her exhibitions and installations express the vitality of an animistic, spiritually charged universe. Smith’s imagery shows the fundamental elements of life: humans in their diversity; animals, birds and reptiles; flora and fauna; geology and the elements; as well as the firmament with its suns and moons and stars, all in generative and destructive harmony.”6
Commenting on the Apocalypse/Revelation aspect of her current exhibition, Barberis explains:
“When I first entered the realm of Apocalypse scholarship and the Art of the Apocalypse, I naively thought it was a smallish bit of turf that I could investigate and then move through onto other things – how far from the truth that thought was! The lens of both abstract and figurative elements of the Apocalypse and its [varied] representations has stayed central to the core of my studio practice for many years … I have chosen in my Apocalypse works, at this time, to focus on the redemptive, ‘where every tear shall be wiped away’ and the celebratory – a time of joy after the blackness of an utter destruction.”7
And the Re Looking, “What is it in one’s art practice that draws you to continually refocus on it? Perhaps a feeling of unfinished business, or a need to return to a well-honed process where there is a sense of security in a familiar technique. It may be the interface and dialogic of an idea expressed, or something that needs further articulation, the fact is, artists revisit their work constantly in order to revitalise and invent. The French have a saying, ‘Reculer pour mieux sauter’ or ‘taking a step backward in order to leap further forward. Looking back over things in order to proceed forward. Part of this exhibition is just that – a re looking to re engage and re assess ideas and artworks inspired by the book of the Apocalypse.”8
4. See Monash University Collection: http://www.monash.edu.au/muma/collection/history.html
5. Timothy Taylor Gallery, Kiki Smith: Behold, London, W1K2EX, 12 October-17 November, 2012.
6. See also: The Independent, “Kiki Smith: Behold”, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, 06 November 2012.