“The man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it, knows…something about himself and human life that no school on earth—and indeed, no church—can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. // This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath appearances, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind the words.” – James Baldwin, quoted in Citizen by Claudia Rankine.
A glance cast around Simeon Barclay’s Life Room will light on corners and cubes; blues, blacks, greys, silvers and purples; squares layered over squares; transparency over opacity. The artworks’ slick finishes lend an unease to their viewing, reminiscent of bombardment by adverts—perfect, (un)attainable. So-called ‘beautiful’ things are ostensibly celebrated (fashion, smoking, football), but Barclay’s cool touch withholds comment and puts a playful spin on these representations: high fashion is pitted against cartoon characters, TV soaps and sports; Shakespeare’s Hamlet, black musicians and dancers, white snooker players and actresses are variously portrayed.
Barclay, who worked in factory manufacturing for sixteen years prior to embarking on a Fine Art degree, illustrates the grappling of self-identification: the classed, gendered and racial identities constellated in Life Room are the conversational points of reference unearthed in a highly personal memory-mining. The show plays with recognition and expectation: elsewhere are portrayals of characters from Coronation Street and cartoons The Beano and Andy Capp, that demand recognition from the viewer.
In ‘Royal Flush’ (2017), two large photographic portraits of men (journalistic with a newsprint finish, handlebar moustaches and dishevelled suits) flank two smaller, airbrushed paintings of women (idealised ‘80s beauties with swept-up hair and pearls). The edges of the women’s portraits blur out into their silver backgrounds, fictional beauty emphasised in the hazy handling of line. While the men’s gaze is directed inwards, towards the women, their own is crafted to seductively look out at the viewer, reciprocally enticing the viewer’s gaze: all eyes on these women. The exhibition literature offers many specifics for ‘Royal Flush’, naming characters, actors and film, explicitly rooting the piece in the deindustrialisation and class discrimination of the 80s. This pinpointing goes some way to undermining the idea of appearances of social categories of identity: the working class status of these men is not (perhaps cannot be) visually coded here.
The faltering convergence of viewer’s and artist’s experiences manifests a stuttering feedback loop: continual reference back to the exhibition literature quickly becomes a necessity, but often the expected answers are absent; the recognition game is continuously interrupted, withheld, and made either specific or ambiguous. The viewer is often firmly without; vulnerably, somehow. The high-shine finish of many of the artworks, however, counters this: blue, purple and black acrylic glossily reflects: viewers and their own identities become implicated, and, through reflection, exhibited. The dangers of assimilating to—as opposed to asserting and celebrating difference from—dominant cultures are explored here through the performative disciplines of fashion and celebrity.
In ‘B.S.P.’ (2018) a huge, luminous, black sheet of acrylic carries the phrase ‘english rose’ in dark blue lettering, the lack of contrast meaning the words almost disappear into the background, enacting the western cultural absorption of ideological ‘english rose’ beauty. Layering of deep tones shows this ideal to be born of narrow sameness: the fair girl of white culture is here inverted: midnight blue, a black background, black heritage and culture. The off-centre portrait of a young, male model in a sharp suit on the runway offers a new english beauty, but the ‘bittersweet pill’ of the title alludes to some despondency with this gesture: that the empowering and cathartic effects of destabilising within the white-walled gallery ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. The count of ‘1, 2, 3’ that overlays the image compounds this: indicating that the work of subversion is yet to really begin: that it is up to the brightly reflected viewer to start.
The success of Barclay’s Life Room is akin to Claudia Rankine’s achievement in Citizen, which springs to mind before ‘Gatefold Series: I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now’ (2016): a pared down exploration of the words, ideologies and politics of war, race and nation that swarmed around Maradona’s famed ’86 World Cup ‘hand of god’ goal. Like Citizen, Life Room is a highly personal, depersonalised account of becoming, sustaining and interrogating a self, all the while being tripped up yet shaped by moments of cultural explosion—and moments of uneventfulness. Barclay’s success is often carried in the imperceptibility of his radical critique that simmers right below those high-shine surfaces.
Life Room is, in its entirety, a self-portrait: an excavation of the construction of the socially classed, gendered and raced being that Barclay is attempting to understand he has become. Those viewers that have no personal experience with some of the cultural moments posited here may struggle to find points of entry; a good deal of work—of movement—is needed to get into the nuanced exploration Barclay is attempting. It is this removal, however, that most successfully illustrates the fallibility of self-naming and self-identifying. The huge gap between the ambiguity of visual portrayal and the specific linguistic explication that the exhibition literature offers, proves the instability of the categories we believe ourselves to be marked by.
Jazmine Linklater has published the pamphlets Toward Passion According (Zarf, 2017) and Découper, Coller (Dock Road Press, 2018). She works for T-Junction International Poetry Festival and Carcanet Press, and co-organises No Matter, a new experimental reading series in Manchester.
Simeon Barclay: Life Room, Holden Gallery, Manchester.
8 February – 29 March 2019.