Review  by Professor Simon Olding

Review  by Professor Simon Olding  |  Director, Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts, Farnham
 

Harriet Barber has produced a large body of work on the most demanding and deeply personal of themes. Her studies of women post-surgery are both a testament to her models who have been through the harrowing rituals of invasive care forbreast cancer, and to her own treatment.  Central to this moving exhibition are two images: one, a large, ferociously-painted self portrait; the other a small and highly poignant pencil drawing. The range of emotion as well as scale between these two images is wide: unmediated anger, though the anger of life; and the gaze of dying. But if these are extremes,captured in the fleeting line and the energetic, loaded brush stroke, then what lies between is a lyrical and expressive outburst of confidence and energising personality.

 

Barber’s models take to their unaccustomed roles and poses with singularity and expressiveness. They havemade the artist rethink the relationship between the artist as the controller and the model as the instructed. None of these women lie down meekly for the sake of the artist’s command. They loll, flirt, and lie luxuriantly and gracefully. The backdrops to the work are richly coloured textiles and intensely illuminated rooms. The women gaze back not with the bleak pain ofwounds in their faces; but with a strong and intensely sharpened focus: a new focus on life, time and the need to take any opportunity with both hands and wring it for success.

 

Harriet Barber has built a growing reputation for her post romantic, plein air oil studies from nature: sea and beach scapes, river banks and the atmospheric rural outposts of Cornwall orDorset. Nothing in her past experience as a painter has prepared her for this intensive investigation into psychological drama and the aftermath of gruelling hospital treatment. She has immersed herself in this project and become a stronger artist because of it.

 

Barber has not painted and drawn these expressive works solely for the sake of therapy, although there is medical evidence that, as the Director of the Winchester & Andover Breast Unit says, ‘the use of art has a very positive therapeutic effect which is difficult or impossible to achieve with other approaches’. She has done so to mark a distance from her own personal grief and the pain of the women who have faced their own dark journey of treatment. She has found a powerful narrative in their collective responses and their remarkable ability of self belief and the fight for life. This discovery imbues her work with lightness, colour and verve.

 

Barber has let her art go to accommodate these telling impulses. She has forsaken the more regimented past of her figure painting and the control and order of her Slade-trained work in this vein. In doing so she has paid her models and herself the service of honesty and openness. She has looked on these scars and found that they do not tell her about personality, courage or the impressive force of hope. Her paintings, pastel and oil studies leap out of the frame with energy, vibrancy and sometimes erotic vigour. They mark a harrowing rite of passage for herself and her models, but one that they have transcended together.

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