Lucy Barlow | Delicate Boundaries
‘For a long time I’ve been the girl who does the drawings of birds and cakes’.
First Floor Projects are delighted to present Delicate Boundaries, a solo show of work by Lucy Barlow. Shedding a formal narrative, Lucy Barlow’s new collection of abstract watercolour, gouache landscapes and fine art drawings reveal a significant departure from her previous work, ‘I am still in control, but it is less controlling than my previous work. It is expansive. I am still a spectator, still questioning, but without the questions impeding on the natural progression of the work itself.’
The fine art drawings are reminiscent of her previous whimsical illustrations, which she describes as ‘contained, formal compositions…very controlled, very fine, lyrical line drawings’. But this control, she indicates was a metaphorical boundary. Her new drawings have evolved; by using coloured or lead pencils on paper, dip pens and inks filled in with watercolour, she creates wonderfully witty, tongue in cheek drawings such as Bears Say No that participate in the negative space around them, and that still exhibit some of her old humour; ‘there is a childish part of me that doesn’t want to give up the ghost, or stop being silly’.
Intuitive colour placement ensures Barlow’s abstracts remain anti-formulaic, creating a tense sense of push and pull between the background and foreground. This way of working with colour, Barlow believes, was inspired by Helen Frankenthaler’s unprimed canvases, ‘vast vistas and sea, so alive they breathe’. Moments in time are captured but remain fluid through the depth of tension between Barlow’s colours; paintings such as Fire Ladders fizz with freshness and light. Lucy Barlow’s work possesses an intentional sense of the unresolved – ‘there are questions that have no answers, and I am trying to reflect this without the ends being tied up perfectly in a bow’.
The work of Louise Bourgeois encouraged Barlow to experiment with materials and engage in a constant monologue with herself, while using her work as therapy. ‘I used to feel guilty and selfish, so self-indulgent, being an artist’ she says, ‘but the Bourgeois show really reminded me of the importance of creativity and the arts in the world. There is a wonderful freedom of expression.’ Time, not frozen but physically ‘gestural’, creates a moment for dialogue between the visual work and the viewer – the paintings encourage an accessing, even an embracing of the dormant parts of oneself. ‘The communication of the visual bypasses words’ says Barlow, something she experiences first-hand when encountering work by Louise Bourgeois. In response to this lesson she has learnt from Bourgeois, Barlow’s work searches for ‘chaos and imperfection, while finding comfort within that formless, liberating way of working’.
Lucy Barlow studied at Central St. Martins, and her work featured in group shows at the Modern Art Oxford (2004) and the Institute of Contemporary Art (2005). Since graduating from Oxford Brookes University in 2006, Lucy Barlow has participated in several collaborative shows, including Obsessions at Modern Art Oxford (2008) and Sarah Brown and Lucy Barlow, Oxford Town Hall (2009). This is her first solo show.
This is the inaugural exhibition of First Floor Projects. From his London home, James Tregaskes will host a variety of exhibitions by new contemporary artists. The gallery heralds a return to the salon, presenting and dealing art in a residential space.
Felt Landscapes | The Paintings of Lucy Barlow
Landscape haunts Lucy Barlow’s paintings. It is there, forever hovering, forever teasing the viewer with hidden contours and ambiguous depths. Horizons drift, dimensions fall away. Perspectives blend, bleed, and bump, moving from one ambiguous plane to the next. In this continual play of foreground and background, we may recognize something of Cubism, or perhaps even more strongly, of Helen Frankenthaler’s lyricism. However, it would be a mistake to see Barlow’s work as proceeding necessarily from landscape—as taking representational space and running with it, deconstructing as it goes along. Her work does not abstract from landscape, rather, her expression can be said to take on the guise of landscape. In other words, her playing with perspective does not unravel our perceptions of the world, but locates and expresses emotion. In the end, those hazily-formed landscapes we find in her work—both near and far, both contained and oceanic, both intimate and unsolicitous—seem to offer up whole emotional geographies, vistas of felt experience.
In Island, Barlow gives us a limpid scene with a distinctly Mediterranean palette: conch-shell pinks mixing with Hockney-esque pools of blue; gradations of green fields leading up to dotted red foliage. (Matisse, here, as in much of Barlow’s work, would seem to be an important touchstone.) However, Barlow prevents such an idyll from becoming too blissfully naïve or utopian. What is dramatised for us in that distance would seem far more dynamic, far more real, than untroubled paradise. The view is complex, deeply emotive. We look out onto patchwork of bird’s-eye-views and shifting planes. Meanwhile, out of this spatial flux, comes a certain momentum, a buoyancy, a generous and joyous uplift.
This potential for upward movement can be sensed elsewhere in Barlow’s paintings. In MMT, for instance, we find a marked tendency towards the upper parts of the canvas. A brilliant rush of rugged incandescence comes to form an alpine mountain range. Indeed, the effect is not unlike those more directly spiritual forms of art in which transcendence is implied by the gradual rising of the drama. The viewer is compelled to behold, to bear witness.
Again, Barlow’s play of background and foreground is fundamentally important, in this respect. Distances are brought nearer while depths of field are given the intensity of magnified surfaces. This is especially discernible in paintings like Island and MMT, but spatial ambiguities are equally integral to darker, less obviously dimensional works such as 4,7,8. Along with that painting’s elevated, boat-like shapes—drifting in their lagoon of deep vernal green—the thinning and the thickening of the paint is itself made to suggest hidden depths. As in a night time forest, what at first seems flat and impenetrable becomes, on closer inspection, unfathomably deep.
Somewhere, there is footage of Leonard Bernstein lecturing an orchestra on the meaning of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. He asks his musicians to remember ‘lying on the ground, in spring or summer; you lie down, face down on the ground, and you want to kiss it. You watch the grass grow and you want it to just enfold you.’ And it is precisely this desire, it seems to me, that a painting like Barlow’s 4,7,8, embodies: the need to commune with the dark fecundity of the earth. To bring the natural world, the surrounding landscape nearer and draw it in like breath, reconnecting self to place. We might imagine, Alan Bates, at this point, rolling through the grass, naked, in the film version of Women in Love, and not be far off the mark. Barlow, too, is constantly making her landscapes felt, allowing perception alone to embrace them, to feel something of their textural reality. Throughout her painting, sight is allowed to flex its muscles and come into flesh-like communion with the seen. These mountains, this sky, these leaves, this body of water—all these vague landmarks—they defy the illusion of their distance by emoting freely and by taking on the intimacy of more immediate surfaces. The world, emotionally, moves that much closer to us.
In 4,7,8, for instance, we are again drawn upwards with the scene, this time towards an abundance of red spilling forth from the top of the canvas, as if the seam in a Barnett Newman work had been partially unzipped. The red comes through from behind, with a weightiness like wet fruit. Here, we confront a running theme in Barlow’s painting: the play between concealment and revelation. Her work constantly asks us to guess what is being hidden and what shown. What has been left unsaid and, moreover, what is beyond saying? With 4,7,8, Barlow regales in the erotic subtext of these questions. If we can say, on the one hand, that this spilling forth of bountiful red implies a spiritual revelation (of the Sacred Heart, for instance), then it also carries with it an equally erotic charge, a disrobing. In the dark, in the stillness of night, our desire for communion has—in this instance, at least—been requited. The expansiveness of emotion has been described topographically.
Lucy Barlow ultimately presents painting as an existential event, a summary of one’s being-in-the-moment. Helen Frankenthaler’s influence is again apparent in the way each work can be said to embody an interior place (albeit a place witnessed only vaguely and momentarily, through a mist of associations and playful ambiguities). That being said, Barlow, as we have seen, manages to make these self-contained and subjective realms remarkably spacious. Her paintings are informed by the personal, yet they breathe with an organic worldliness and depth. If what we confront in them is an internal dialogue in-process, then it is also an open dialogue. This is key, because it allows the work to invite us into its configuration—making us imaginative participants in its creation—without any showiness, overt textuality, or gestural violence. Their invitation is a largely silent one, a presumed one. The paintings simply wait for us (as any panorama might) to look on, not just attentively but feelingly.
David K. O’Hara, 2009