‘Of itself just enough.’ It’s as if we’re listening in. Sara Barker is talking about her work and we are the privileged ones overhearing her conversation as she looks eloquently for the words which will express what she is doing.
The experience of looking at her work is like this too. Even in this public exhibition in the fine, high-ceilinged top gallery of the Ikon, it feels as if we are being specially allowed in to see and experience what she makes. Here, she explores the space, the inside/outsideness of the edges of her being in the world. She’s finding her boundaries for us. And we, panting alongside, a few cumbersome steps behind, are able to stumble across the delicate, almost not-there-ness of her painted structures. Except that structures is altogether too solid a word for what is all about looking at and through something.
Although the work makes us look at the architecture of the gallery (those high arched windows, the vaulted ceiling) and indeed feel as if the pieces were made to be there – she stands back from saying that what she makes is primarily architectural. She talks about ‘carving out space’ – saying that space is different from architecture. She associates architecture with monumentality while what she does is to ‘stretch out’ space, exposing its weakest parts. Again, we get that language of testing, of physical experience. She has been trying to find biographical space. This is a psychological space as much as a physical one – or rather, it’s psychology expressed through physical means. Her language is physical too. She talks about ‘making sense’, of ‘being contained and looking out’ of ‘withstanding weather’, of making linear pieces ‘cling to the wall’, of being ‘sparse’.
This sparseness can be seen in some earlier pieces, where she ‘edited’ or cut up her paintings, revealing only the best bits of a painting, making sense of the work afterwards. The ‘slightness of the painted surface’ that she speaks about makes sense when you look at this work in the gallery.
When she works with glass it is to convey something of what is there and not there. And as a wearer of thick glasses in the studio, she finds a vital blurring when she takes the glasses off. This humanness is important; she feels the vulnerability of materials and works with them accordingly.
Now things are changing. Her latest work allows us to have more painting, and as I look at the piece hanging directly behind Barker when she speaks, I see fascinating levels upon levels, layers upon layers, created both by painted illusion and by the reality of a jagged unrectangularity which is in turn upended by the metal structures coming out of and through it. As she says, her work is ‘not quite painting, not quite drawing, not quite sculptural – my space’. Now she wants a bigger surface to say something, is thinking of work which is closer to fresco – like paintings which were on walls, caves, temples.
‘Of itself just enough’. It’s not an accident that Barker works with literature as a stimulus; her talk is vivid and revealing, full of a strange mixture of certainty and confidence in what she is doing and at the same time a complete openness to what she might turn up next.
When responding to questions about gender, Barker states clearly that she is an artist first, rather than a feminist artist – but she also asserts that she is and must be a feminist person. She aims to find what is mysterious, to pull us in and allow some other sort of world to be found through what she makes. Philip Pulman’s ‘subtle knife’ is evidently a continuing influence.
When the final question turns onto something that has been said about punctuation and ushers in a witty ‘full stop’ to the conversation, Barker replies that she aims not to work with marks which are already there, but ‘to find my own punctuation’. Indeed.