File Note 30: Claire Barclay - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Andrea Tarsia


Claire Barclay Images References Quote Biography Credits

Claire Barclay

Claire Barclay’s installations are abstract compositions in space, drawings animated in three dimensions by material, colour and form. They invite the eye to travel up, across and back down again, to observe through a wide-angle lens a broad horizon or focus on a detail in close up. Where our eye wanders our body soon follows: led by a timber plank or a string of knotted jute, we move forward, crane our heads, stoop, twist and turn. Tactile, mostly organic materials draw us in, as do the openings and dead-ends that lie in wait, presaging our arrival. Sharp or sinister objects cause us to stop. There is great stillness here, sustained by an internal logic and its relation to the architecture it inhabits. Yet the works ripple with latent activity, energy harnessed in materials that touch, rest, connect, balance, stretch, curve away or towards, work with and against. Soft is pitted against hard, organic against synthetic, handmade against machined, while pressure points act as pivots around which the whole hangs together. A single shift would turn stillness into tumbling, destructive motion, contemplative silence into the loud clang of falling metal, the short, sharp, snap of splintering wood.

For all their careful balancing, Barclay’s installations don’t so much communicate precarious fragility as an obdurate, unsettling instability. Her works move between rarefied, abstract delineations to more populous and suggestive situations, yet in both instances they are marked by a mute presence that is hard to decipher, both familiar and utterly strange. We think we recognise familiar objects, like keys, pots or combs, but all have been shaped in such a way as to prevent any practical use. Tables defy gravity to stand on three legs, while chairs have neither a seat nor a back. Unable to attribute meaning through function we are led instead on an associative journey triggered by memory and the imagination, that draws on the sensory and the subconscious as well as the demands of reason. These are the processes through which we make sense of the material world: “What I’m really doing I suppose” the artist has stated, “is exploiting the materials for [a] range of references, and trying to use the process of making sculpture to investigate how meaning comes through form.”1

Structured around tension and contradiction, the generative core of Barclay’s installations lies in making and materiality and is fuelled by a desire to physically engage with the properties of those materials she works with. This in turn has led Barclay to a sustained fascination with craft, expressed in the recurring presence of artefacts — vessels, containers, printed cloths — as well as techniques that range from weaving to throwing clay. Both reveal an interest in acquiring a form of material knowledge that today seems surplus to requirements, extraneous to the needs of a service and finance driven world. Yet while the presence of craft may project an air of quiet domesticity, Barclay places this against references to artistic movements such as Arts & Crafts and the Bauhaus, movements in which, alongside art, craft was advocated as a vital element within society. “Build up the ornament part of life”, invoked William Morris, “its pleasures, bodily and mental, scientific and artistic, social and individual”.2 In a different spirit Walter Gropius premised the Bauhaus on “manual dexterity” and “practical training”, demanding “a new and powerful working correlation of all the processes of creation”.3 Barclay’s work neither indulges a nostalgic longing for the pre industrial past nor trusts the rationalist order that lay behind the modernist ethos. Instead, she links through contiguity the seemingly irreconcilable, in a fascinated yet sceptical meditation on instances in which form and function express higher ideals. 

Barclay enjoys mixing references in this way; the recent appearance of blocks of lime render refers to contemporary attempts to build a better world. They echo a traditional form of construction that makes use of bales of unused straw, rendered in lime, to build thermally efficient houses using naturally occurring materials. A collaborative process that is shaped by many hands, it has today resurfaced as cutting edge, environmentally viable ‘technology’. Elsewhere crystals and dream catchers have introduced an element of hippy, New Age spirituality to her enquiry. Here craft is aligned with a spiritual presence, one that is nonetheless entirely commercialised, played out in countless gift shops that offer spiritual enlightenment for sale. More recently the artist has introduced a number of elements — skull caps, woven fabrics, webbed broomcorn — that suggest the rustic, pared down aesthetic developed by the Shakers at the turn of the nineteenth century. Their belief in purity as a means to salvation gave form to a culture of invention and the handmade that stripped away all adornment in favour of functionality:  “All beauty that has no foundation in use soon grows distasteful and needs continuous replacement with something new.”4 Here too, such references open up material culture to a history of contradictory ideas, one that flows downstream towards European modernism on the one hand, and to American folk art on the other.

References to the spirit and the intellect are counterbalanced throughout Barclay’s work with sensory disturbances that allude to the body, never directly represented yet everywhere implied. Many of the artist’s installations convey a precisely articulated order spiked with the alien and the out of place: structures suggestive of physical support and shelter — bed frames, tents, encampments — are suspended in a state of semi-collapse, while amorphous strips of leather or hide, dark wooden objects or sharp metal spikes invest her work with the downright sinister and disconcerting. Formal purity of colour and line is disrupted by suggestive references that hint at organic and bodily properties: black, phallic objects, or folds of red leather prized open and peeled back; oozing, gloupy substances attached to metal, or murky blood-brown paint that sullies pristine fibres; a single, white glove stuffed into a narrow gash in wood.

Barclay’s works then, hinge on a balance between a rational, structured order and a disruptive polluting force. The British anthropologist Mary Douglas has written about just such a tension as a recurrent feature of all social orders. “Most of us indeed would feel safer if our existence could be hard-set and fixed in form… It is part of our human condition to long for hard lines and clear concepts.” Yet, she continues, such order is predicated on the isolation and exclusion of that which ‘dirties’ or ‘defiles’, relegated through a process of physical and conceptual dematerialisation to the “mass of common rubbish”. In between, “their half identity still clings to them and the clarity of the scene in which they obtrude is impaired by their presence”.5 Barclay’s obtrusions perform a similar function, operating in a liminal zone between material and matter that threatens order with chaos, form with the formless, purity with dirt. They open up a space in which we measure and give meaning to the inert through sensory experience or physical attribution, investing it with the power of the fetish, the anthropomorphic and the abject.

Despite their material and formal specificity Claire Barclay’s installations are also marked by empty planes and open spaces, voids that course through her work like the hum of static electricity. With lightness of touch she gathers around them a history of ideas that suggest a metaphysical enquiry, in a propositional process that extends out of the studio, into the exhibition space and from installation to installation. In many ways they dramatise the instability of presence, activated through a contradictory associativeness that muddies the clear waters of the known, the ordered and the ideal. As Douglas succinctly wrote: “The final paradox of the search for purity is that it is an attempt to force experience into logical categories of non contradiction. But experience is not amenable and those who make the attempt find themselves led into contradiction.” 6


1 Claire Barclay in conversation with Louise Hopkins, in Claire Barclay — Ideal Pursuits (exh. cat.), Dundee Contemporary Arts, 2003, p. 49 

2 William Morris, ‘Useful work versus useless toil’, in Kolocotroni, Goldman and Taxidou (ed.s), Modernism: An Anthology of Sources, Edinburgh University Press, 1998

3 Walter Gropius, ‘The Theory and Organisation of the Bauhaus’, in Harrison and Wood (ed.s), Art In Theory 1900–1990, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1995, pp. 338–343

4 Quoted in ‘The Shaking Quakers’, Utopia Britannica: British Utopian Experiments 1325–1945, www.utopia

5 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, 1966. Republished by Routledge Classics, London, 2002 

6 Ibid.

Richard Sennett The Craftsman Allen Lane (2008)

Anni Albers Selected Writings on Design Wesleyan (2000)

Brandon Taylor (ed.) Sculpture and Psychoanalysis Ashgate (2006)

Agnes Martin Agnes Martin: Writings Hatje Cantz (1991)

Yi-Fu Tuan Escapism Johns Hopkins (1998)

France Morin Heavenly Visions: Shaker Gift Drawings University of Minnesota Press (2001)

Mary Douglas Purity and Danger Routledge (2001)

Iain Banks Whit Abacus (1996)

Henry David Thoreau Walden Oxford (1997  written in 1854)

‘ honest brick ...’

‘ The attribution of ethical human qualities — honesty, modesty, virtue — into materials does not aim at explanation; its purpose is to heighten our consciousness of the materials themselves and in this way think about their value.’ Richard Sennett, The Craftsman


Claire Barclay Born in Paisley, Scotland 1968, Claire Barclay studied at Glasgow School of Art and continues to live and work in the city. She has had a number of solo shows both in the UK and internationally including: ‘After the Field’, Washington Garcia, Dumbreck Riding School, Glasgow (2008);‘Fault on the Right Side’, Kunstverein Braunchsweig (2007); ‘Silver Gilt’, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London (2005); ‘Foul Play’, doggerfisher, Edinburgh (2005); ‘Half Light, Art Now’, Tate Britain, London (2004); ‘Ideal Pursuits’, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee (2003); ‘Homemaking’, Project Space, Moderna Museet, Stockholm and ‘Take to the Ground’, The Showroom, London (both 2000). She represented Scotland in the 50th Venice Biennale in the exhibition ‘Zenomap’ alongside Simon Starling and Jim Lambie and was selected for the ‘British Art Show 6’ (2005). She has exhibited in numerous group shows including ‘Early One Morning’, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (2002) and ‘Here and Now’, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee (2001). Claire Barclay will have a solo exhibition at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh in 2009.


Andrea Tarsia is Head of Exhibitions & Projects at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

File Note generously supported by John S Cohen Foundation.