Per Barclay

The structures that Per Barclay exhibited were presented as sparse elements in an abstract landscape. One wandered among them as if in an ambiguous garden without center, where decorative details could be multiplied to infinity. In this rarefied space, all routes are really equivalent; there is neither entrance nor exit. The prevailing reference point seems to be that of a pallid science fiction that describes an alien world without judging it. The structure in the center room had a cold luminosity; two rectangular glass basins, nestled one within the other, rested on a thin wooden base. Both were full of water, maintained, in a state constantly on the verge of overflowing, by a closed hydraulic circuit. A white, irregular slab of marble spilled like foam from between the sandwich of glass, as if created by the encounter between the two basins. Circular holes opened up here and there in the marble, echoing the form of the many crystal spheres of various sizes scattered on the floor around the structure.

In the next room, two other works each employed two basins as in the central room. The same mechanism prevented the water from overflowing. In each of the pieces, an industrially grooved marble block was suspended obliquely over the basins by means of steel cables attached to the wall. In one piece, the suspended block spurted water in parallel jets from the marble grooves into the basin beneath, creating a fountain effect. In the other, the marble block was simply suspended asymmetrically above the basins of water. A third room was occupied by a large iron container, placed on the floor and filled halfway with black motor oil. A piece of iron, raised above the level of the oil, supported a hollow structure made of thin sheets of marble lined with iron. The square-based, upside-down, truncated pyramid these formed was mirrored in the oil below. The last work, placed next to a wall, consisted of a block of red marble, partially immersed within an iron container filled with a red solution of oil and enamel. A few drops of red enamel ran over the marble, artificially tinting the stone.

Barclay’s chosen materials—glass, marble, iron, and wood—are locked in an enigmatic immobility that functions as passive evidence of a shift in meaning introduced by the only active variables, the oil or water. This relation between solid and liquid, passive and active, seems to ply the distance between the opposing banks of the mythical and the conceptual. The equivalence between the two maintained in all these works indicates that, for Barclay, the mythical and the conceptual are the field of exercise of a mannerism that celebrates the esthetic code, not as a critical indicator but solely as a “mask,” an empty sign. Understood in this way, the conceptual may be seen to correspond to the animated transparency of the water, the mythical to the encompassing, stagnant, and reflective quality of the oil.

Paradoxically, it is precisely when movement is anticipated in Barclay’s structures that theory comes into play. Both the cascading fountain and the perennial overflow condition in the basins end up functioning, not as traumas provoked by nature upon form, but as elements necessary to a rational demonstration. Through the closed hydraulic system, the water is always on the verge of overflowing yet is always controlled, and for this reason, the organic movement of the liquid is revealed as a rhetorical element. Thus it is nature that is allegorical, rather than “real,” and can be experimented with only as a code. Barclay’s abstract landscapes reflect upon their own resolutely artificial basis, according to which even the anonymous repetition-form of the tragic becomes “decor.”

Barclay’s work locates the only alternative to this condition in the myth to which the artistic elements are entrusted. Suspended above the glistening black oil, the hollow, truncated pyramid is presented like an altar of collapse wherein all historical significances can be precipitated—swallowed up by the thick darkness below. The opposite is true in the red piece, to which the artist entrusts the myth of the happy fusion of opposites. Here the stone and the liquid are brought into relation by color. The resultant phallic indicator exhibits the drips of red enamel as signals of the reconciliation between artifice (the liquid) and nature (the stone).

The stark contrasts in Barclay’s work finally are revealed as false. All is made homologous by the artistic gesture, as if every element becomes an interchangeable part of a discourse, the words of which don’t come from the voice but from the mask. If Barclay’s mannerism teaches anything, it is the loss of the historical/philosophical significance of the languages available to the artist.

Luciana Rogozinski

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.