Review: Anna Barriball - Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

Plastic windbreaks covered with black pen
Plastic windbreaks covered with black pen
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THIS new exhibition might be a drawing show. Or it might not. Anna Barriball makes drawings that disguise themselves as sculpture. And sculptures that turn out to be drawings.

The other things she does – cutting, crumpling and even, in one memorable set of works, blowing ink-filled bubbles – are all mark-making devices of a sort.

Of all the things that artists get up to, drawing seems weirdly fraught with questions of value, even of morality. In this job, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen artists chided or lauded over the question of drawing.

For some, it is an essential virtue, a kind of necessary foundation garment for other practices. For some it’s a secret vice: scratch the surface of many so-called conceptual artists and you’ll find someone who wakes sweating at 4am and reaches for their pencil.

Drawing is sometimes seen as uniquely expressive, the shortest distance between the hand and the head. Or uniquely neutral: until the 20th century drawing was an essential discipline in science and engineering. Now it’s thought of as kind of wussy and even feminine. In the early 20th century era radical artists were sometimes attracted to it for its manly and mechanistic overtones.

One of my favourite discussions of drawing in recent years has been that raised in the works of Glasgow artist Cathy Wilkes on the subject of Francis Bacon. He always pretended he didn’t draw; there was something in preparatory drawings that diluted the charisma of his paintings. When he died hundreds of them were found. Drawing was a dirty secret, a hidden necessity that, like women’s work or manual labour, shouldn’t be talked about.

So there is drawing and there is drawing and there is Anna Barriball. Downstairs in the main gallery, the first thing you see of this show is a vast wall of muted plaid. These are plastic windbreaks joined together in a single expanse, mounted just jutting from the wall and each has been covered in a dull sheen of black marker pen.

It’s hard to know what to make of this work at first, it’s such a big emphatic gesture, and so empty. It’s a kind of pun on draught, drawing not as a window on the world but as a barrier. If drawing might often be seen as a way of going from one place to the other, with the hand or the mind, then Barriball stops you short, this is drawing going nowhere.

The same point is made, I think with much more elegance and exactitude, in one of Barriball’s best known works, which is showing in the adjacent room. Draw (fireplace) from 2005 is a simple film projected on to the gallery wall. You see a fireplace, its grate obscured by a hanging piece of paper. Just out of shot, the artist is creating an air current by opening and closing a door, and the paper expands and contracts. When it clings to the grate you see the impression of what looks like a ribcage. And then the paper is flat again. It’s like an attempt to make the most invisible drawing of all. It is there. And not there. It leaves no traces, a drawing made from touch alone.

This impulse to make contact with surfaces is everywhere in Barriball’s work. Door is an entire traditional door, made by laying a sheet on the surface and covering it with graphite, like a kind of brass rubbing. In the process it acquires three dimensions, like a shallow relief sculpture. Mirror Window Wall is a series of sash windows rendered, through similar techniques in silver ink.

Again Barriball is worrying away with the questions of openings and barriers, apertures and dead ends. Mirror Window Wall confuses. You wonder about whether it, or you, is inside or out. Many of Barriball’s similar works render something transparent like glass into a hard opaque surface.

In lots of these works there is an attempt to expunge some of the things we might expect from drawing, some sense of personal revelation, a signature. But there’s no denying that there’s something quite moving in what at first seems like a kind of lumpen resistance.

I like Barriball’s smallest works best. The 36 tiny found photographs of a family on holiday that she has spattered with ink that is then blown into spider-like traces. It’s like a failed attempt to breathe life into a dead past. There is the five pound note near obscured by gold pen, its essential identity only just showing through. The two copper pipes leaning casually against the wall, which are just rolled up paper and copper coloured paint.

You can’t look at some of this work without thinking about what it means to have a body, what your hands are for, what it is like to inhale and exhale constantly like that draughty fireplace. And what it might be like when it all stops.

For the work Knife II the artist traced the outline of a blade onto paper and then stitched round it in black thread. The repeated action of the needle eventually severs the paper and the drawing of the knife has become knife-like in itself. This idea of puncturing and mending, joining and severing, at the same time seems to me the perfect metaphor for what drawing a line might be. «

• Until 9 April