Review: Gary Barker: New Territories of the Filth Dimension, Assembly House, Leeds
Posted on June 12, 2015 by Rebecca Senior
Garry Barker is, in the words of Lester Drake, Director at Assembly House, a ‘cult figure’ within the Leeds art scene and his socio-political investigations are highly esteemed. His latest exhibition of drawings at Assembly House was born of weighty subject matter – the ‘emotional and intellectual conflict’ Barker experiences in relation to the foreboding shifting sands of the modern world.
Barker began by eruditely questioning the notion of image making, and its irrelevance in contemporary art practice. His riposte to this uncomfortable claim provided the conceptual depth to his work: words in isolation seem insufficient – they are too restrictive, too easily spun. The allegorical drawings in the exhibition allowed him to subconsciously wade his way through this word/image dichotomy and document his process of conflict resolution between form and text.
If the titles of the works gently alluded to socio-political ideology , e.g. ‘I stand in deep mire, where there is no sinking’, ‘This is why your science is failing’, then the drawings themselves plunged the viewer into sensory overload. Thought provoking and meticulously executed, they were highly unnerving, rich in fantasy and filled with dystopian dreams. Figures were captured in mid air as if they have been tipped out of sinister buildings in the sky; vague skyscrapers protruded through the clouds; unsexed, headless forms darted about as if fleeing from some insipid terror while others morphed into tree branches or were eaten by pigs. But the pigs weren’t just gluttonous; in a Huxlonian vision they were depicted dancing and reading texts. Intriguingly, a deck of printed cards (‘Cards of Identity’) encouraged the viewer to intersect these stories and form their own tarot; mirroring the escaped narrative of figures who had made their way onto the ceramics and wallpaper.
Standing in front of one of the large tapestry-like drawings which depicted a journey down through the urban sprawl into the quasi – rural hellscape below, the viewer could not help but think that The Filth Dimension was so deeply infused with political, psychological, philosophical and sexual overtones that all the stories were told very well, without words.
Paul Bramley is a painter, writer and curator based in York.
Stories of Chapeltown Exhibition
Text by Angela Kingston
*… man is in his actions and practice, as well as his fictions,
essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’*
Alasdair MacIntyre, *After Virtue*, 1981
Garry Barker lives in Chapeltown, a part of Leeds notorious for crime and unrest, and characterised as a ‘no-go’ area. It’s also exceptionally multicultural. In the different quarters of many UK cities, there will be perhaps two or three main immigrant populations. In Chapeltown this cultural mixing is markedly intensified: different languages and traditions would seem to emanate from every house, business and social club. And because of the sheer density of population here, this whole humanity spills onto th streets. In Chapeltown people are more visible, and more audible, too.
Many artists will opt to live in this kind of inner-city area, in part because they get a lot of space for their money. But Barker is unusual in how much he engages with his environs, both as an artist and as part of a local community group. Chapeltown is a story of which he finds himself a part.
He walks to work, leaving a little early so as to be able to make what he calls his ‘ordinary’ drawings: of a house, or a mosque, or a fish and chip-shop, say – all very straightforward. But back at home in his studio, and a couple of stages of drawing later, it’s all quite transformed. It’s as if he’s lifted himself into the air and taken crane-shots with a distorting lens. Rendered in pen and ink and watercolour, on very large sheets of paper, there are swooping vistas of interconnecting streets. And, thanks to the myriad perspectives, many different things can be seen at once.
In some ways, Barker’s drawings are simply documentary. In *Neither a burrower or a lender be*, we see a circle of dancers outside a Ukranian club (‘Dancing is important, it seems to me,’ says the artist). There is also group of people marching (there are frequent marches in Chapeltown, both political and religious). But more than just recording the times, Barker mentally re-plays, pen-to-paper, the multifarious things he sees people doing: the stories of the place. He re-enacts and enlivens in much the way that children do when they draw.
The realization that each of the figures in the drawings is a self-portrai is puzzling at first. But it fits with the intense identification that Barker brings to what he draws. And also, perhaps, he is conjecturing himself as Everyman, someone easy to identify with; someone who helps the viewer enter the story too.
And crucially, there’s still another, inventive kind of storytelling. In *Neither a burrower or a lender be*, individuals and groups dig up the roads; some reveal tree roots that are transformed into cabling; others plant and harvest corn. There’s a future story that’s anticipated here; in which perforce, we grow food locally, as happened during the 1939-45 war. ‘I was attracted to the idea of growing things again, on the ground around; I like the sense of commonality of labour among the distinctions,’ says Barker. (Incidentally, he connects the value he places on shared activity to the loss he feels, years after the steelworks where he worked closed down: ‘It was close-knit,’ he says. But that’s another story.)
Two further large drawings involve other fantasy narratives set within the same streets. One, called * The dues we owe our ancestors*, shows people tending to the souls of people murdered in Chapeltown: ‘we’re expected to forget these killings very quickly, for the sake of moving on,’ says the artist. Another, called *Trespassers in our own homes*, a lament for our maltreatment of nature, features figures with their ears pressed to the ground. ‘Some of them are taking transfusions from nature, that’s what’s * actually* happening,’ explains Barker.
When I start to make connections with Stanley Spencer’s paintings – particularly his Biblical scenes set in the village of Cookham, where
Spencer lived – Barker is pleased: ‘Yes, he is an all-time hero, certainly.’
Like MacIntyre (quoted at the beginning), the philosopher Mary Midgley places great significance on storytelling. The arts, with their myths and other stories, are ‘meant to throw light on the difficulties of the huma situation, and if … we refuse to use that light, we sign up for death and darkness’ (*Wickedness*, 1984). We see here, in Barker’s artworks, a vivid engagement with narrative and with that light. Even, and perhaps especially, at their most fantastical, his drawings – to use MacIntyre’s phrase – aspire to truth.
Garry Barker is an artist who draws. He draws things he sees as he walks, he draws the things he thinks he sees as he thinks about what he has seen and he draws the things that are not there when he starts drawing but which arrive as he draws.
A Black Country Lad
Born and raised in Dudley, in what was once Worcestershire, Barker found that he was from an early age at the centre of mysterious forces. The places he played in belonged to an age of past myth and these embedded themselves into his visual imagination and still today lie behind his internal imaginative landscape.
The council house Barker was born in stood in the shadow of the Wren’s Nest hills. Now a nature reserve, then, in the early 1950s a wild place of sharp rock outcrops and mysterious caves, threaded through with green brown waters that were the entry points of an underground canal system. This playground was a result of the area’s long industrial heritage, a heritage that in the 1950s still appeared to be a live one, as several members of his family were still employed at the Earl of Dudley’s steel works and his grandparents lived in the shadow of the steelworks themselves. As a child he would help his grandmother bring in the washing before they opened the blast furnaces, (if not clothes would be marked with black specks from wind-blown sparks). These furnaces would cast a dark red glow across the sky, their opening signalled by a surprisingly sudden shift of the spectrum. In fact, it is believed that Tolkien’s descriptions of Mordor are based on the Black Country, in particular Brierley Hill, the very area of Dudley where Barker’s grandparents lived and which was celebrated in this anonymously penned poem.
When Satan stood on Brierley Hill
And far around him gazed,
He said: "I never more shall feel
At Hells fierce flames amazed."
His maternal grandmother and grandfather had long histories of association with the ‘Earls’. His grandmother when she was a child remembered tales for her mother having to sleep with the steelwork’s horses, so that she could warn her parents of any oncoming illness or other problem that could potentially stop the animals being of use the next day. Her father was a groom as was Barker’s grandfather’s. When the horses were replaced by mechanisation the steam train became the family’s wage earner. As a boy Barker would sometimes be given a train ride by his granddad, who would stop his engine on the single track that ran behind the local terraced houses, and collect up the boy, so that he could ride the 0-6-0 wagon shunter, with its blazing coal fire and polished brass handles, a boy who would be allowed to stoke the fire and his imagination at the same time.
Two of Barker’s uncles also worked at the ‘Earls’ and he knew its smell and the feel of engrained oil and coal dust long before he realised that he would himself at some point have to work there. Which he eventually did, but not long enough to scar him, just long enough to shape his memories and hone his vision.
Meetings with animals were still an everyday occurrence when Barker was growing up. Besides his grandmother’s close connections with horses, (she read them like a book), a lot of families kept pigs, chickens and rabbits as a supplement to their diet, this of course being something that had been encouraged during the war. His grandmother would be very careful with food preparation, peeling potatoes finely and only cutting out the worst of the diseased cabbage leaves, however there would always be something left over and a job for small boys was to feed the pigs with the scraps. A job not without its hazards and for someone at the time quite short, encounters with pigs could be quite terrifying. Pigs are powerful creatures and when they look at you, you realise they have a human like intelligence; their individual faces still live with Barker today, over 50 years later.
Because the local abattoir was over the road from Barker’s primary school, the sound of pigs being led to the slaughter was a constant accompaniment to the daily routine of chanted times-tables and squealing playgrounds. After school t he would play boats in the abattoir’s huge sinks with his best friend. They didn’t mind the rows of hanging carcases that loomed above them, they somehow made the empty spaces peopled and their flesh was comforting and familiar. Children in those days being given boiled pig’s trotters in vinegar as comfort food.
Barker’s father’s family were coal miners originally from Shropshire, who moved to Dudley via Cannock, and who before the rise of industry were Shropshire shepherds. This meant that conversations between older family members could often turn to stories of methane gas and coal dust fire and other hazards of the trade. Because Dudley had coal, limestone and iron ore all available to mine locally it was therefore honeycombed with disused shafts and tunnels, some of which went back to the 13th century. This meant that some of the areas children played in were doubly dangerous and of course that much more fascinating. Underground fires in particular were the source of many stories. At times the ground would just open up and houses would disappear down gaping pits. At one time Dudley Town football and cricket club found a seemingly bottomless pit had opened out overnight in the middle of its pitch. This gaping fissure still opening out into the dark depths of Barker’s unconscious fifty years later.
Dominated by a castle, Dudley stands on a hill overlooking the West Midlands. The castle has been the site for many years of a zoo another key component in the shaping of Barker’s imagination. The castle stands on an outcrop of limestone and the Wren’s Nest rises up as an extension of this. The Priory Council Estate lying in the hollow below the castle and the rocky Wren’s Nest outcrops. As children we of course often went to the zoo and many of the larger animals inhabited pits and caves very similar to the ones we played in. The story amongst us children was that the caves that the bears inhabited were linked directly to the Wren’s Nest caves. Perhaps more unsettling however, was the sound of alien animals barking, crying and grunting in the quiet of the night as you walked around the edge of the zoo walls.
This Black Country landscape still lives, frozen in memory because Barker left the area in the late 1960s never to return. Not many people seemed to leave Dudley and none of his family had outside the area connections. But one person from the Priory Estate did make it out into the wider world; Duncan Edwards. Duncan was a footballer and was in the 1950s perhaps the greatest of his time. His coming from the Priory estate meant that if he could make it, any of us could. One of the Busby Babes, his ghost now looms over the late 1950s, Duncan’s death in the 1958 Munich air disaster predicating what was effectively for the town of Dudley, a state funeral ; the population standing in a silent respect that echoed the still deeply felt memorial silences of armistice days. Images of the snow shrouded crashed plane still haunt a generation of football supporters.
St. Francis Xavier said, “Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man”. Barker’s walks through Leeds are patterned by his brain’s memory theatre constructed out of the industrial landscape of nineteen fifties Dudley. His sense of private myth embedded in that period from 1950 to 1969, a time that when looked at from 2010 may as well be Medieval, but which is a time from which he can’t escape and from which perhaps he doesn’t want to.
The text below by Sam Broadhead was one of three that accompanied the exhibition catalogue/poster that was available at the exhibition opening.
Garry Barker’s work captures something most of us have lost. That is the childhood fascination and connection with locality. It reminds us that our immediate environments and communities still have significance in our increasingly globalised culture. Back Streets, snickets, gunnels, backyards, gardens disused patches of land – ordinary spaces where extra-ordinary happenings can resonate.
His work documents those places where emotive events have occurred. Special sites, where bad things have happened are marked out by images of bodies dematerialising, becoming part of the fabric of the space. This reminds me of the places Haruki Murakami has written about in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (2003), for example, the bottom of a dry, deep well in a forgotten garden backing onto an obscure, unused alley-way. These are places where a person is able to defy the laws of physics by breaking through the boundaries of time and space. Many of these drawings show excavations that reveal hidden connections and structures that underpin or undermine our homes and neighbourhoods. Often the protagonist is stoically digging the earth or contemplating what lies beneath our feet. The work suggests other ways of perceiving the streets we pass through every day.
The map of Chapeltown is made up of multi-points -of-view, a devise that means the viewer is here and everywhere simultaneously. Is this the soul’s point of view? Mr. Honda’s chant in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is ‘dying is the only way/ for you to float free’ (2003, p120)
Light and shadow are present both formally and metaphorically in the work. Previously dark places are illuminated. Bodies, fabric and shadows become ambiguous. Individuals and communities inhabit these landscapes. They are not treated sentimentally or nostalgically but are represented observing their surreal world in a deadpan manner.
Garry Barker: In the Shadow of the Hand- Narrative Drawings
Leeds College of Art, Vernon street building
October 17th to November 23rd, Weekdays only
Hailing from Chapeltown in Leeds, Garry Barker presents us with his ‘Chapeltown stories’, a collection of seemingly simple documentary drawings. The drawings actually turn out to be a complex and at times puzzling take on a part of Leeds infamous for bouts of crime and unrest. Although inspired by Barker’s walks to work, these drawings are more than records of everyday life. Ultimately they become a reflection of Chapeltown personality and hold a deeper meaning. This multicultural, bustling place provides a brilliant backdrop for Barker to explore ideas of labour, protest, lament and locality. These, at times, fantastical works are actually an expression of truth and humanity.
In ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ we see people dancing, groups of people marching and people digging up roads. This imaginative storytelling hints at group work, shared activity; community. There is a clear interest in agricultural elements – interestingly ideas of home-grown food are juxtaposed with industrial sized crowds of people. Barker is attracted to the idea of going back to growing things and furthermore, the sense of harmony and unity that comes from shared labour. His work comments on a modern time whilst trying to reconnect with values of the past.
Barker’s work also has emotive depth. In ‘The dues we owe our ancestors’, we see people tending to the souls of murdered people in Chapeltown. The piece remembers the murdered in a world where, as Barker comments, ‘we’re expected to forget these killings very quickly, for the sake of moving on’. For all the fancy delicacy of some of these works, there is a very stark reality. The soft, pastel colouring and imagery associated with pastoral life could fool the viewer into a too straightforward reading of nature and happiness. ‘Trespassers into our homes’ for example, considers our maltreatment of nature, with figures pressing their ears to the ground in hope of taking some transfusion from the environment around them. Moreover, one large scale piece depicts an intricately detailed, apparently birds-eye view map. On closer inspection, however, many different points of view confront the eyes simultaneously. Some trees are upside or appear to lie flat when we feel we should be viewing it from the top. Out of proportion figures spill onto the streets and grow in size.
We are left questioning what it means to be part of the local area, a member of society but also of humanity. Although small, this exhibition leaves you with much to think about, and is worth a visit even to solely appreciate the aesthetic side of these wonderful drawings.