Event: July 1952 / Flame Boy
Silkscreen and mixed media
76.5 cm x 91.7 cm
2006

 

Event: August 1959 / Playground for the People
Silkscreen and mixed media
76.6 cm x 91.9 cm
2005

 

Event: September 1956 / Museum Boxes
Silkscreen and mixed media
76.6 cm x 91.9 cm
2005

 

Event: August 1955 / Hats in the Hawthorn
Silkscreen and mixed media
76.6 cm x 91.9 cm
2005

Event: June 1958 / Remembering Roger
Silkscreen and mixed media
76.4 cm x 122.2 cm
2005

 

Event: September 1953 – July 1955 / Fear of Flying
Silkscreen and mixed media
76.5 cm x 122.4 cm
2006

 

Event: July 1954 / Under Canvas
Silkscreen and mixed media
61 cm x 122.2 cm
2005


Event: January 1985 / The Letter
Silkscreen and mixed media
61.1 cm x 122.2 cm
2005


Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art 19th February – 17th March 2007

Barrie West: Between Tides

Barrie West’s early years were spent on the South-West coast of England: coastal imagery continues to inform his mature work, providing both colour harmonies suggestive of reflected coastal light, and a guiding metaphor with which to view his body of work. Journeys between the River Tyne and River Wear, on the North-East coast, have given rise to a new body of eight silkscreened prints taking the collective title “Between Tides”.

Here, the repetitive rhythms and mark-making processes associated with coastal tides act as a metaphor for how quotidian time is experienced in memory. Each tidal motion creates an accumulation of marks upon the sand up to the tide-line; though just as surely, the majority of marks are submerged or erased by their successors, leaving only a more generalised discernible pattern. Though West’s works are technically prints, our most immediate reaction is to perceive them in terms of the history of painting and as embodying painterly values. West’s distinction is to have extended the language of printmaking into quite new territory: his work lies between painting, print and sculptural form, becoming a new species of object.

The artist’s process is a series of what we might call “slow improvisations”. Beginning with newsprint paper, West creates a variegated “ground” of texture, which subtly bleeds through the dense accumulation of coloured painterly “glazes” overlaid. This texture is heightened through the artist’s application of various abrasive materials to the surface, and the screening of texts. Though these texts are largely “buried” by subsequent layers, some elements remain detectable on close examination. The “ground” beneath the work “Sand Wishes” begins with the words from the artist’s own childhood, spoken by his parents, which are obscured and covered by layers of pigment, as memories are by the passage of time. Although as the works are on paper this “ground” is flat, it provides some sense of the “ facture” associated with “painterly” artists such as Courbet or Corot. As the artist remarks, it creates a “tooth” which animates every other element from the ground up.

West’s starting point for each work is an emotive incident recollected at leisure. Such memories are not solely a point of reference, though they provide an armature upon which to hang a range of sensations and associations. Rather, they are the imagined images which each picture becomes the abstract pictorial manifestation of. Each finished picture renders that most intangible thing – a personal memory of a past event – into a vivid, concrete presence. The artist’s aims are to stimulate our imagination towards our own, parallel recollections, whilst eliciting the same cluster of sensations the artist experienced through the process of remembrance.

As in Howard Hodgkin’s work, in West’s prints events from the distant past are transfigured into abstract pictorial form over a lengthy period. However, West’s vocabulary of marks encompasses a spectrum of gestural and geometric marks, held in tension. “Event: August 1959 / Playground for the People” is built upon tightly defined concentric ovals and rectangular planes, which might evoke memories of childhood sports and games, and dynamic motion. Overlaid (and underlaid) is a dense web of organic, leaf-like forms, which feel to be interlocked, and whose pattern dapples across the picture surface.

The play between what might be called expressionistic and “architectural” modes of abstraction achieves two things. Our eye is drawn around and around each sqare inch of the entire picture plane and kept in motion across a series of incidents and focal points. The underlying geometrical structure, often based upon classical composition formulae, facilitates this visual dance. West’s layering process recalls the Metabolists’ description of modern life as a series of overlaid rhythms.

The artist’s use of printing achieves something distinct: he creates an immediacy associated with high modernist painting whilst retaining a spatial complexity and depth. His works embody both spatial effects characteristic of pre-modern picture-making and the “flatness” associated with abstract expressionism. His medium – inks – initially appear to “float” upon or sit flush with the picture plane. This is underlined by his use of vivid primary hues, most readily associated with Matisse. (Inks can offer a purity and vibrancy of hue which most painters might only dream of.) But unlike Matisse, West’s palette incorporates hues which are associated with the man-made world as well as the “natural” one. As West remarks, whereas some works seem to connote the “coloured lights and illuminations” of cities at night, others recall “gardens and hot-house flowers” – or at least nature’s more exotic species.

The build up of thirty or more layers can continue over a three or six month period. And yet rather than adopting a pre-existing system or serial technique, where risk is eliminated and results pre-determined, each of West’s works is the result of structured risk-taking. As more layers are applied, and their accumulation creates the density, intensity and subtlety the artist aspires to, the ways in which each form and colour will interact becomes ever more difficult to predict.

Such complex layering, or “glazing” to use painters’ equivalent term, establishes a dialogue between concealment and revelation; between forms, which are tangible, and those partially or largely obscured. West’s “glazes” allow him to play with contrasts in opacity and translucency, and between inks with matte and silken finishes, animating each corner of the surface. More profoundly, his mastery of colour temperature and saturation further complicate the pictures’ apparent depth of field and spatial complexity. Often, hotter colours appear more distant, and vice versa; drawing us into an illusionistic vista whilst offering a contradictory sensation at the same time. Though some might characterise West’s pictures as intimiste, unlike Bonnard or Vuillard or Matisse, his hues suggest expansive landscapes and northern climates, rather more than tightly defined interiors or the Matissean sensations of “luxe, calme and volupté”.

West’s titles often reinforce this impression, alluding, if indirectly, to events which suggest the northern European or British open-air, rather that the confines of the city or interior life. In fact each title juxtaposes two components: a poetic or emotive and imagistic element such as “Hats in the Hawthorn”, and a prefix which uniformly begins “Event….” These prefixes are tied to a particular date, often several decades earlier. With this, the artist kick-starts the viewer’s imaginative processes, alerting us to the basis of the work in a real event, and in a closely remembered and personal experience. The latter, expressive component then sets a chain of associations in play, providing a particular point of entry or evocative image. Through this, West encourages an empathetic response: each work is an invitation to latch our own memories onto the “hooks” which each cluster of marks, and their respective associations provide. Alistair Robinson Programme Director NGCA .

 

Alistair Robinson          Programme Director NGCA

Barrie West