On display at the Baltic until the end of the month is A subtle knife, made by Sara Barker in collaboration with Ryder Architects, and specifically commissioned for the space. The piece seems to me to be a significant and positive development in Barker’s work.
Architectural structures run through the history of modernist sculpture. Within the Constructivism of, say, Naum Gabo, architecture was approached through the monument – a functionless, uninhabited and symbolic architecture, one the viewer stood outside of. In contrast a significant feature of the constructed sculpture of the sixties was its co-option of an inhabited architecture – sculptures by Anthony Caro, William Tucker or John Panting deal with (at a certain level of abstraction) the sensations of being contained within the four walls of a room, being led down a corridor, looking through a window or confronting a wall. Somewhere to one side of these developments is Giacometti’s surrealist The Palace at 4 AM of 1932. It countered the public and utopian iconography of Constructivism with an iconography that was private and opaque, ambiguous and subjective. Through the sculpture of David Smith The Palace at 4 AM was also part of the pre-history of the constructed sculpture of the sixties – though with very different types of ambiguity, different levels of abstraction and, crucially, different senses of scale (perhaps we could just say, different types of inhabitation).
The main body of Barker’s work (which as I’ve seen in a solo exhibition at Stuart Shave and, more recently, at the Saatchi Gallery) clearly sits in relation to the ‘inhabited architecture’ of Caro, Tucker or Panting. To my eyes, though the comparison is unavoidable, it does not do Barker many favours. Barker undoubtedly has different intentions to this earlier generation – she combines the inhabited architecture of the sixties with a lingering ghostlike image of the upright human figure, uses intentionally fragile, worn-out material, and, most positively, has an intriguingly subtle, though perhaps underdeveloped, use of colour. But I don’t think these changes have really been enough. Next to, say, the sculptures John Panting made between 1972 and 73 Barker’s look vague and repetitive. I think the problem chiefly lies in her reliance on the faint resemblance to the human figure and on the (in a sense pre-existing) literal-poetic qualities of her materials. The combination means that a general mood can be created without too much attention to the specific spatial dynamics of each sculpture – the result being that they tend to strike the same note, and somewhat blur into each other.
A subtle knife begins to move away an ‘inhabited architecture’ and toward both a sense of architecture as monument and the framework of The Palace at 4 AM. With these shifts – particularly the growth in affinity with Giacometti – Barker comes closer to the work of Eva Rothschild (b. 1972) and Alice Channer (b. 1977). Though crucially Barker crucially still has little of the overt surrealism of Rothschild or Channer; nor their work’s edge of glamour or its tendency (more than a tendency for Channer) to expand from sculpture and into installation.
A subtle knife is divided in two vertically stressed halves and spreads laterally, with sharply angled lines connecting a succession of stacked frames and part frames. Mounted on marble plinths, the two halves are linked at one point high above the ground (I wondered if it would have been effective if the link has been left implicit – the tendency to over-explain structure is perhaps a general problem). In the shorter half, sheets of thick glass form three articulated screens that meet at a central axis, with the glass supporting a complex framework of rods; whilst in the taller half the rods are the main visual-structural element. The glass works well. The other elements of the sculpture appear caught within its transparency, and in a strange way these structures appear at once more tangible and more elusive when seen in reflection; condensing the overlapping rods on a single plane lends them a sense of certainty but this certainty is lost as you shift position and the illusion disappears. This sense of an elusive structure – a structure which is not quite there, or which you catch out of the corner of your eye – is clearly a theme in the rest of Barker’s work. But there it remains just a theme, too easily translated into words, whereas in A subtle knife elusiveness comes closer to being a compelling physical or visual property.
A subtle knife works is best seen across its general views. This is true of Barker’s other sculptures but there the general view – fairly consistently in the guise of an enclosing frame and the lingering image of an upright figure – is much more restrictive. In A subtle knife the combination of its lateral spread and two vertical halves allows more variety. Barker’s evident attractions to fragility, delicacy, transience, to halfway states are given more room to breathe, opened up more fully.* The piece exploits its size – there is a lot of drama generated by standing close to the taller half and looking upwards, or seeing the spread of line and frame moving along the long axis to the summit. In part this drama comes from an ambiguity of scale – a tension between its affinity with architecture as monument and an inhabited architecture; or between its clear resemblance to the glass towers of the contemporary city and its resemblance to an over-sized architectural model. In a way this ambiguity is unsatisfactory – I would allows pick clarity and resolution. But in breaking out from the form of her previous work here ambiguity is productive. Unwieldy and precarious A subtle knife nevertheless points forward. Perhaps the main question is whether Barker is able to incorporate its successes into the rest of her production.
‘A subtle knife’ is on view at the Baltic, Gateshead, until the 30th of March
* I’m aware I raised a similar point in my recent comments on Alice Browne’s paintings