If you have recently ridden on the London Underground escalators, you would have passed several simple white posters inscribed with bold, black text. An authoritative presentation of decidedly muted and fragmented statements, they ranged from the paranoid (‘I think I’m being watched’), to the heavily ironic (‘Oh boy! What a wonderful city!’), to the mundane (‘Off to work 8:15 AM. [Nylon uniform.]’). Anna Barriball’s poster campaign acted as a comic strip’s thought bubble might, transposing fellow travellers’ musings to legible advertisement-style signs. But as a series of inscriptions taken from the back of found photographs, one stands out as particularly representative: ‘Looking back the way we had come.’ The sentence exists somewhere between the past and the present, paused in the act of examining its own trace, while blatantly denying us access to the view being described. Willfully obstructive, the phrase is, instead, released from its context to become elegiac, self-reflective.
As with the found phrases, Barriball’s work hovers between states, playfully bouncing between documentation and transformation, detachment and intimacy. In her recent exhibition at London’s Frith Street Gallery, the floor was seemingly scattered with leaves, a serene autumnal scene for a pleasant stroll. Each leaf in Untitled (2008), however, was a piece of cloth cut from the patterns of second hand curtains; countless inane floral draperies and vegetal patterns given a new, theatrical life that was neither natural nor domestic, though still relying on both. Veering between realism and kitschy exaggeration, the installation’s use of illustration also highlighted the artist’s central concern with the transformative possibilities of drawing, which, for Barriball is not simply the hand applying a series of lines to paper. She employs a wider definition of the medium as a gesture, an act that creates an imprint – and in the act endows an ambiguous autonomy on the imprint itself.
Barriball’s earlier work has focused exclusively on that momentary touch of the imprint – as in her 2002 series of constellation-like drawings that document the impact of a rubber ball covered in graphite powder on paper, each titled simply with an hour, minute and second. Her ongoing set of traced surfaces explores this in more prolonged depth: in each of the ‘Mirror Window Wall’ (2008) series, four framed silver sheets are arranged to resemble a window frame. The sheets give a muffled sheen, interrupted by bumps and grain occasionally breaking through the paper. Each details a portion of brick wall, its rough contours obsessively traced with a silver pen covering the entire surface. The line of the pen is so thoroughly applied so as to almost erase the evidence of its mark, its fill at once rendering the brick reflective and the ‘window’ opaque. Sunset / Sunrise V (2008) is a similar tracing of a two-part stained glass window, its semi-circle sun and outgoing rays impressed on the paper by thickly applied pencil. The immediate impact of these works is their dense, confrontational façade, the drab shades then giving way to the intricacies of textures from the original object. These shining walls and impenetrable windows are visual puns that knowingly implode, refusing to act as either their original archetype might, or under the new designation of its correspondent rubbing. It is then, as a potent afterthought, the process that created such a surface is realized as the means through which this object is held in its suspended, permanently unsettled state. The act of drawing continues to perform its nullifying transformation, hiding in plain sight.
Barriball’s self-evident, self-effacing work can feel impersonal, but its detachment marks the point at which the artist relinquishes control to whoever wants to experience it. She seems to have progressively traced the outline of an interior, domestic space, having taken the imprint of familiar walls, windows, a door, floorboards; similarly, her video Draw (fireplace) (2005), is a shot of the wind from a chimney repetitively sucking in a sheet of paper placed over a Victorian fireplace, its indrawn breaths pressing its contours to the paper before again breathing out. Gesturing towards an inhabitable space, Barriball consistently circles and pushes at its parameters, only to reinforce this house as determinedly inaccessible. It instead exists as a site that wavers between two and three dimensions, a locus of paradoxes and simultaneities.
First published in Issue 122