Art review: Sara Barker: CHANGE-THE-SETTING | Grey Gardens

Sara Barker's CHANGE-THE-SETTING. Picture: Ruth Clark
Sara Barker's CHANGE-THE-SETTING. Picture: Ruth Clark
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Sara Barker confidently plays with perspective and shape at the Fruitmarket Gallery while DCA celebrates the hope of Sixties modernism

The Glasgow artist Sara Barker defies conventional wisdom about medium and materials. Not because she ignores the rules, but because she embraces them so pluralistically. She is a sculptor who uses automotive paint on aluminium as though it were watercolour on paper, a painter who makes her images in three dimensions, a draftswoman who draws her lines in sinuous bronze or staccato steel rods, and a big muscular maker whose architectural-scale installation at Newcastle’s Baltic in 2013 was as finely rendered as a piece of delicate jewellery.

Sara Barker's CHANGE-THE-SETTING. Picture: Ruth Clark

Sara Barker's CHANGE-THE-SETTING. Picture: Ruth Clark

Sara Barker: CHANGE-THE-SETTING | Rating: **** | Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

Grey Gardens | Rating: *** | Dundee Contemporary Arts

CHANGE-THE-SETTING at the Fruitmarket Gallery gives us a chance to see Barker’s work at closest quarters since her 2014 show at Glasgow’s GoMA and it is her most significant UK exhibition to date. After starting out at university to study art history, Barker, who grew up on the Isle of Man, changed course and trained as a painter, graduating from Glasgow School of Art in 2003. She met her gallerist Hannah Robinson of Mary Mary as a peer at GSA, sharing in the fledgling project that became Robinson’s commercial gallery. It is now 10 years since Barker showed at Edinburgh’s Collective as part of their New Work Scotland programme for emerging artists. From tentative beginnings, and a stint working at Cove Park, the wonderful artists’ residency centre in Argyll, she has grown in confidence, stature and international profile.

Barker’s work is often talked about in terms of thresholds. Her trademark leggy armatures in splintered wood or metal are like windows or doors, using pictorial and perspectival tricks more common in painting. The show coalesces around two new bodies of work in which Barker’s skeletal frameworks have begun to fill out. In the ground floor of the gallery a series of recessed works on aluminium are embedded in the wall. They are dappled with car paint and spray paint in urban neon or moody blue and covered in Perspex. The interplay between the layers, creating a series of distortions and uncertainties, and the poetry of rainy day reflections suggests the west coast climate and urban sprawl.

Sara Barker's CHANGE-THE-SETTING. Picture: Ruth Clark

Sara Barker's CHANGE-THE-SETTING. Picture: Ruth Clark

Upstairs the landscape that is an implied presence in much of Barker’s art becomes literal in Borderline, a vast but gauzy two-sided painting on Perspex that forms a new wall in the gallery. Barker’s emphasis on gesture and touch opens up to let the ambient light shine through.

Crucially, the artist seems to be the observer in the work rather than an active presence or person observed. There is a sense of distance. You imagine Barker looking out of her studio window. Her work recalls the quiet, contemplative portraiture of Gwen John or the actual space of contemplation: the Room of One’s Own that the writer Virginia Woolf so famously called for. These days, it is heartening to note, Barker’s modest art can also command the room.

If Sara Barker harks bark to a period in early modernism where women found radical and experimental voices in the social disruptions of industrialisation and war, Grey Gardens at Dundee Contemporary Arts celebrates another more prosaic, but curiously moving, modernism. It is that of the post war era: the concrete new town, the roundabouts and underpasses of Glenrothes and East Kilbride, or the more isolated incidents of bold and glamorous sixties modernism in the lovely plate glass aesthetic of the domestic architecture of Morris and Steedman in upmarket sites like Edinburgh’s Ravelston Dykes or lofty Blackford Hill.

Grey Gardens is part of the 2016 Festival of Architecture, but in looking at towns and buildings it pledges allegiance to artists’ perspectives, noting the way in which the legacies of lost architecture became the living tradition of subsequent generations of contemporary artists.

Grey Gardens at the DCA

Grey Gardens at the DCA

The show begins with a small wall piece by Martin Boyce. It is a slab of cast jesmonite that imitates the shuttered concrete that once formed the textures of key modernist sites like London’s South Bank. On top is a text that reads “Against the Sky”.

That melancholy image of concrete against nature is the leitmotif of a show that both celebrates and mourns an era. Colin McLean photographs one of Scotland’s most important modernist buildings: Peter Womersley’s studio for the textile designer Bernat Klein at High Sunderland, Galashiels. It is a building in stilled repose among the trees. Womersley’s masterpiece is in private ownership and work on its restoration has stalled.

Near Maidens in Ayrshire lies Port Murray, another Womersley design that, unlisted, is now reaching the end of its days. The artists Smith/Stewart have been visiting it for 25 years and in its death throes have had permission from its current owner to film inside for their video installation Port Murray. End Piece.

The sea laps at the building’s shins, while rainwater drums percussively on its eroded interiors. A series of monochrome print works and a small maquette derived from the footprint of the building are displayed nearby; they look like images of a funeral casket.

Grey Gardens at the DCA

Grey Gardens at the DCA

But if today’s artists have been quick to gather at architectural modernism’s wake, it is good to remember how they ushered in its years of optimistic birth. Glasgow School of Art graduate Neville Rae has restaged the important work of the late Brian Miller with whom he worked and whose murals and sculptures transformed the townscape of Cumbernauld for almost three decades.

In Glenrothes, for a decade from 1968, the pioneering public artist David Harding transformed the grey landscape into a concrete and stone garden of delights with sculptures referencing totem poles, standing stones and Celtic crosses. Harding went on to become one of the most influential artistic educators of the post war era. Among his students: Neville Rae and Martin Boyce.

• Sara Barker until 5 June; Grey Gardens until 1 May

Grey Gardens at the DCA

Grey Gardens at the DCA