Claire Barclay

February 2009

Publication: The Times

Claire Barclay’s installations, sculptural objects, prints and drawings have a common denominator – they are enigmatic, ambiguous and, on the whole, visually and intellectually engaging.


Since graduating from Glasgow School of Art’s now famous Environmental Art department in 1990, Barclay has rigorously pursued her constantly evolving vision. Never content with a wholly conceptual framework, Barclay works mainly with physical objects. She uses these as a starting point and invites her audience, implicitly, to explore their nuances and associative qualities. So we are presented with a carefully crafted  structure vaguely resembling a chair; a wooden pole peppered with worn bristles; a pair of spherical objects encased in kid skin; strands of cut raw-hide, lathe-cut poles resembling stair balustrades – and much else besides.


Sometimes these objects are presented in tableaux, creating a perplexing quasi-narrative; at other times, they stand alone - challenging, provocative and bewildering. It is as if Barclay is toying with her audience, enjoying the puzzled responses and discomfiture. Indeed, it seems that this is part of what she intends.


None of these items are what is termed ‘found’ (i.e. they have had a previous use). All appear to have been made from scratch for the specific purpose of illustrating the artist’s visualisations and this fact lends a clue to fathoming Barclay’s technique. Pre-existing objects would have specific associations and so by making her own she is left with a clear field of vision, allowing meaning to be hinted at but never wholly pinned down or explained.


The oak, brass and leather structure from 2007 Untitled (from ‘Fault on the Right Side’) is a case in point. The work suggests the idea of a chair (it has legs and upholstery) but a menacing yet subtly positioned metal blade steers us away from such domestic and mundane interpretations. What are we to think? At the very least, the piece projects a kind of threat. But it would be quite wrong to ascribe specific meaning to this  – or any of the other works here. Fluid, subliminal associations are what they are all about.


But like any artist, Barclay does not work in a vacuum and its not difficult to see here and there the strong influence of the Surrealists and artists such as Joseph Beuys. However, this is not to detract from Barclay’s originality nor the effectiveness of her work.


Two new large works (located in the upper part of the gallery) have been made especially for this exhibition and are, in the jargon, ‘site-specific’, although determining the nature of such specificity is difficult, if not impossible. Many of Barclay’s concerns coalesce in Caught in Corners and Subject to Habit but they are less successful than some of the earlier and smaller-scale pieces perhaps because they seem somehow less threatening. The first of these evokes the architectural (straw bales covered in lime render) and the domestic (oak drawers and decorative fabric) but there are other elements such as wheat sheaves and brass objects which are again perplexing, unfathomable. Wheat suggests the idea of harvest, hospitality and fecundity but its use here (incorporated from earlier work such as Untitled (from ‘After the Field’) seems less effective.


What remains in the mind after seeing Barclay’s work are a series of images and impressions which are both visual and emotional. It’s like a dream from which one awakes full of unease but which has no specific narrative or ‘meaning’. It is, one suspects, just as the artist would wish it.