Two ways to begin …

    Karen Wilkin

    Retour à l’intimité avec les objets presque domestiques à prendre dans ses paumes, à suspendre à un clou ou poser sur la table de travaille — petites sculptures precieuses, presque des pots, presque des fragments d’archéologie — ambiguité entre l’objet et la sculpture, avec une forme humble dans un materiau noble — bronze caché sous une matière rugeuse at terreuse — l’etain comme richesse des ustensiles pauvres.*

    Vincent Barré Notebook entry, 9 VII 94

    I

    Two ways to begin. The first, that Vincent Barré’s recent sculptures are his most allusive and complex yet – intimate, highly charged objects that make us meditate on what it means to be human. The second, that his recent sculptures are his most abstract and willful to date, as though after nearly two decades of making work that alluding more or less directly to the body, he allowed himself new freedom to invent forms independent of the human figure. That both statements are true is part of why Barré’s recent work is so compelling. 

Barré is no stranger to paradox. Both the tradition of the self-contained monolith and the language (and often materials) of collage-derived construction have interested him equally, along with a wealth of divergent traditions from many different times and cultures. The notebooks that are his frequent companions, as diary, sketchbook, and travel journal, record his attention to Romanesque carvings, Buddhist votive images, trecento and quattrocento frescos, icons of 20th century painting and sculpture, archaic statues, African cult figures, the artifacts of ancient and undeveloped cultures from both West and East, and much more, including buildings ranging from medieval chapels to Nepalese lamaseries to Bauhaus-inspired residences, all drawn on the spot, from direct observation. 

Yet the connections between Barré’s eclectic affections and his own work are subtle. If he has consistently honored tradition – or traditions — he has also made efforts to resist its seductions. While it is true that his sculptures are often deeply informed by his wide-ranging sources (usually without specifically resembling any of them) it is also true that they frequently belie his conscious desire to distance himself from inherited traditions and chosen ancestors. When he (atypically) incorporated direct quotations from Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel frescos into a series of collages, it was difficult to decide whether this was an homage to passionately admired images or an effort to exorcise their power, an attempt to come to terms with influence or to break free of it.

Over the years, Barré’s choice of materials and methods has been as diverse as his sources (despite his avowed lack of interest in the craft aspect of art-making). He has worked in recycled lumber, steel plates, bronze, cast iron, occasionally in glass or found-objects, and rubber, made ceramics, monotypes, large scale collages, and oversized wall drawings. It’s debatable whether each medium provoked different forms or whether a desire for particular forms led him to adopt a given medium. What is unequivocal is that throughout Barré’s exploration of disparate materials and techniques, he has remained faithful to a certain delicacy, as though asserting the primacy of the man-made over the mechanical or the industrial. Even in even his largest sculptures, made by flame-cutting thick slabs of steel, crisp silhouettes and aggressive piercings visually lighten the massive material, while irregular edges recall the passage of the hand-held torch through resistant metal. 

When Barré began to make sculpture, abstraction and a tradition of non-referential, open construction in metal were firmly established within the canon of Western modernism. He was certainly aware of the dominance of this approach and interested in the efforts of some of its practitioners. Yet because he wanted his own work to have, above all, the intensity and immediacy he admired in sculptures from the past and from other cultures – which he equated, in part, with the presence of the figure – he never wished to exclude figurative references from his work. Still, he accepted the syntax, the material vocabulary, and the inherent abstractness of modernist construction as points of departure that offered useful alternatives to the academic tradition of figurative modeling. Perhaps this was a legacy of Barré’s formation as an architect, which habituated him to working in an additive way and to thinking about rational, lucid wholes as assemblies of a great many disparate (often rigid) parts. Barré’s architectural training and practice accustomed him, too, to thinking about the metaphorical, rather than the descriptive qualities of structures; buildings, since they were made to be inhabited, implied human presence. This may explain why he never adopted the “untraditional” soft materials and methods that many sculptors of his generation employed as equivalents for the characteristics of flesh and organs, or as declarations of their independence from the “new tradition” of abstract construction. 

Another paradox: for all his fidelity to the language of construction, Barré’s principal theme during the first decade and a half of his life as a sculptor was, with few exceptions, the human figure. Sometimes the reference was explicit; at others, the image was oblique or disguised, but an essential corporeality always underlay Barré’s formal logic of this period, so much so that it influenced or even determined the beholder’s fundamental relationship to his sculptures. Many of his most ambitious pieces from the early 1980s through the mid-90’s were upright, frontal, and more or less symmetrical. Even when they didn’t refer overtly to the familiar shapes of torso and limbs, even when they were headless and articulated in ways that ignored the proportions of the body, they took full advantage of our tendency to read vertical forms as confrontational standing figures. Similarly, Barré’s horizontal sculptures of those years, while frequently among his most abstract, also demanded to be read as reclining figures, perhaps because of the context provided by their vertical counterparts; even his deeply sliced, recurrent bird images seemed conflated with the silhouettes of angular dancers, knees sharply bent and arms thrust backward overhead, like half-raised wings. 

At the same time, the poised symmetry of these structures, like the clarity and crispness of their development in space, invoked not only the body, but also archaic sculptures and artifacts. Plainly, this is not unique to Barré; all works of art are, on some level, about other works of art. Plainly, too, Barré is neither an ironic appropriation artist nor one motivated by a desire to make objects that make us think primarily about their connection the tradition of sculpture. Yet there is always something about the relationship of his work to other works of art (and sometimes, non-art) that suggests a third way to have begun this essay: that it is increasingly clear that Barré has not been engaged in a dialogue with the past, but in a lively argument of the sort one might have with a respected mentor or family member whose influence has become suffocating. He has never repudiated the sources that formed and nourished him – rather he has celebrated them – but he has also struggled against them and succeeded in finding an equilibrium between cultural inheritance and self that makes his recent works the most mysterious and personal of his career. 

These recent efforts contrast dramatically with what preceded them. Barré’s flame-cut steel sculptures of the first half of the 1990s were usually large, massive, aggressive in their claims to space, and, because they depended on silhouettes and profiles, asserted their origins as flat, thick steel plates; Barré’s recent work plays on swelling volumes and full-bodied enclosures. His earlier large-scale steel pieces often responded to particular sites and spaces; many of his newest works are small, apparently easy to grasp and move. Far from being connected to (sometimes literally) a specific place, they have an independent existence, at once self-sufficient and aleatory. Even their positioning can seem temporary, allowing for the possibility of other placements, other orientations. 
Many of his recent works are the size of domestic objects, both ancient and recent, “primitive” and sophisticated. They share many of the physical characteristics of specifically functional things but they also imply an all-encompassing, non-specified usefulness. They read as ambiguous objects that are nevertheless emphatically in the category of man-made, willed things, more powerfully redolent of human presence than the most overtly figurative of Barré’s earlier works. It is as though he had achieved a intensified degree of allusiveness by offering imagery at one remove. The body is present by implication, neither depicted, nor abstracted from, but instead translated into resonant, multivalent metaphor. We are constantly reminded of the characteristics of the body by these sculptures, but we are never presented with a direct reference to the appearance of the figure.

     

    The scale of these works, like the scale of the ordinary things they evoke, derives from the scale of the body, so that as we study them, they transform themselves from non-specific objects into surrogates for the figure and its properties. Some evoke tools or objects that can be held. Vessel-like forms recall cupped hands. Helmet-like shapes suggest the skull they are designed to protect. And so on. Such associations are enhanced by surfaces marked by the traces of deliberate touches, reminders of rhythmic, repetitive processes that may have less to do with a tradition of modeling than with Buddhist meditation.

     

    By distancing himself from the theme that has preoccupied him from the start of his life as a sculptor, by shifting his attention from the human figure itself to the modest products of human endeavor, Barré has gained a kind of liberation. He is increasingly able to make use in his work of his strongest feelings, including those about his own body, his way of being in the world, without entirely revealing himself. There are precedents, of course, within the work of other artists, notably the psychologically charged tabletop dramas enacted by Morandi’s humble still life objects. A close parallel exists, too, in the way Matisse frequently used his own sculptures and figure paintings as starting points, substituting the contemplation of thoroughly known objects one step removed from the living figure, already translated into art, for direct observation of the model. 

II

    Barré’s small works often seem oddly unstable, their placement and grouping subject to change. This helps to separate them from what Arthur Danto calls “mere real things,” not only because ordinary utensils and vessels usually function in a single position, but also because their implied mobility emphasizes the artist’s will. Barré’s wall-hung sheet rubber sculptures carry this willfulness even further; they are clipped together in a fashion that deliberately calls attention to the possibility of un-making the piece. As we attempt to understand how the sheet has been manipulated and to grasp its relationship to other works in the series, we become aware of the sculpture’s potential return to uninflected flatness. The three-dimensional object begins to read not as a declaration of sculptural form, but as a momentary, provisional creation, an indeterminate volume endlessly subject to revision.

     

    Something similar obtains in both Barré’s large sculptures and in his wall drawings. In both, the eye is made to move in distinct steps, forced to take the measure of each of the cast iron volumes in small increments, or to recapitulate the additive process of drawing with a series of repetitive touches. We become increasingly aware of the relationship of the length, mass, and bulk of each shape or form to our own dimensions, which returns us, once again, to the realm of the body, here made even more abstract than in the small bronzes, but no less resonant. The body is, in turn, disembodied in the wall drawings, which are generously scaled, wing-like shapes made with repeated, overlapping strokes, apparently pushed out from an unspecified beginning point. Their incremental quality has cognates in the gestures with which Barré builds his bronzes, but in the presence of the sculptures, large or small, the big, arc-ing shapes of the drawings begin to read like opened-out solids or diagrams for angular volumes, returning us to (imagined) issues of making and, by extension, to the hand.

     

    Barré’s themes, not surprisingly, have remained virtually unchanged since the beginning of his life as a sculptor. His ways of giving form to his continuing obsessions have altered greatly over the years, gradually shifting away from reference towards metaphor, but paradoxically, gaining in evocative meaning the more he moves away from explicit allusion. There have been many factors contributing to this evolution, some intensely private and personal, others more readily documented. Most notable, perhaps, is Barré’s close friendship with Georges Jeanclos. The older sculptor’s example, his idiosyncratic, powerfully expressive images, seem to have given the younger “permission” to follow new paths, to probe more deeply the concerns manifest in his present series. While they in no way resemble Jeanclos’s exquisitely fragile figurative sculptures, Barré’s recent works seem to share with his late friend’s an exploration of the nature of allusion. They embody elusive notions of change, instability, growth, and perhaps even decay. The best of Barré’s animated inanimate objects claim our attention by being at once familiar and unlike anything we know, and they seem to acquire additional layers of meaning the more time we spend with them. The small works become ritual vessels, trophies, reminders of significant events from some unknown, unknowable civilization. They become memories of bodies, discarded carapaces of unnameable creatures, silent reminders of something once vital, now moved elsewhere, all testimony to the power of human intelligence and feeling.

     

     

    Karen Wilkin

     

     

    * A return to intimacy with objects that are nearly domestic, that can be held in one’s hand, hung on a nail or placed on a worktable – little precious sculptures, nearly pots, nearly archaeological fragments – ambiguity between object and sculpture, humble forms in luxurious materials, bronze treated as something rough and earthy, tin with the richness of simple utensils.

    This text is taken from the brochure accompanying the exhibition of Vincent Barré at the New York Studio School, November 21, 2002 to January 11, 2003.

    Two ways to begin …

    Karen Wilkin

    Retour à l’intimité avec les objets presque domestiques à prendre dans ses paumes, à suspendre à un clou ou poser sur la table de travaille — petites sculptures precieuses, presque des pots, presque des fragments d’archéologie — ambiguité entre l’objet et la sculpture, avec une forme humble dans un materiau noble — bronze caché sous une matière rugeuse at terreuse — l’etain comme richesse des ustensiles pauvres.*

    Vincent Barré Notebook entry, 9 VII 94

    I

    Two ways to begin. The first, that Vincent Barré’s recent sculptures are his most allusive and complex yet – intimate, highly charged objects that make us meditate on what it means to be human. The second, that his recent sculptures are his most abstract and willful to date, as though after nearly two decades of making work that alluding more or less directly to the body, he allowed himself new freedom to invent forms independent of the human figure. That both statements are true is part of why Barré’s recent work is so compelling. 

Barré is no stranger to paradox. Both the tradition of the self-contained monolith and the language (and often materials) of collage-derived construction have interested him equally, along with a wealth of divergent traditions from many different times and cultures. The notebooks that are his frequent companions, as diary, sketchbook, and travel journal, record his attention to Romanesque carvings, Buddhist votive images, trecento and quattrocento frescos, icons of 20th century painting and sculpture, archaic statues, African cult figures, the artifacts of ancient and undeveloped cultures from both West and East, and much more, including buildings ranging from medieval chapels to Nepalese lamaseries to Bauhaus-inspired residences, all drawn on the spot, from direct observation. 

Yet the connections between Barré’s eclectic affections and his own work are subtle. If he has consistently honored tradition – or traditions — he has also made efforts to resist its seductions. While it is true that his sculptures are often deeply informed by his wide-ranging sources (usually without specifically resembling any of them) it is also true that they frequently belie his conscious desire to distance himself from inherited traditions and chosen ancestors. When he (atypically) incorporated direct quotations from Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel frescos into a series of collages, it was difficult to decide whether this was an homage to passionately admired images or an effort to exorcise their power, an attempt to come to terms with influence or to break free of it.

Over the years, Barré’s choice of materials and methods has been as diverse as his sources (despite his avowed lack of interest in the craft aspect of art-making). He has worked in recycled lumber, steel plates, bronze, cast iron, occasionally in glass or found-objects, and rubber, made ceramics, monotypes, large scale collages, and oversized wall drawings. It’s debatable whether each medium provoked different forms or whether a desire for particular forms led him to adopt a given medium. What is unequivocal is that throughout Barré’s exploration of disparate materials and techniques, he has remained faithful to a certain delicacy, as though asserting the primacy of the man-made over the mechanical or the industrial. Even in even his largest sculptures, made by flame-cutting thick slabs of steel, crisp silhouettes and aggressive piercings visually lighten the massive material, while irregular edges recall the passage of the hand-held torch through resistant metal. 

When Barré began to make sculpture, abstraction and a tradition of non-referential, open construction in metal were firmly established within the canon of Western modernism. He was certainly aware of the dominance of this approach and interested in the efforts of some of its practitioners. Yet because he wanted his own work to have, above all, the intensity and immediacy he admired in sculptures from the past and from other cultures – which he equated, in part, with the presence of the figure – he never wished to exclude figurative references from his work. Still, he accepted the syntax, the material vocabulary, and the inherent abstractness of modernist construction as points of departure that offered useful alternatives to the academic tradition of figurative modeling. Perhaps this was a legacy of Barré’s formation as an architect, which habituated him to working in an additive way and to thinking about rational, lucid wholes as assemblies of a great many disparate (often rigid) parts. Barré’s architectural training and practice accustomed him, too, to thinking about the metaphorical, rather than the descriptive qualities of structures; buildings, since they were made to be inhabited, implied human presence. This may explain why he never adopted the “untraditional” soft materials and methods that many sculptors of his generation employed as equivalents for the characteristics of flesh and organs, or as declarations of their independence from the “new tradition” of abstract construction. 

Another paradox: for all his fidelity to the language of construction, Barré’s principal theme during the first decade and a half of his life as a sculptor was, with few exceptions, the human figure. Sometimes the reference was explicit; at others, the image was oblique or disguised, but an essential corporeality always underlay Barré’s formal logic of this period, so much so that it influenced or even determined the beholder’s fundamental relationship to his sculptures. Many of his most ambitious pieces from the early 1980s through the mid-90’s were upright, frontal, and more or less symmetrical. Even when they didn’t refer overtly to the familiar shapes of torso and limbs, even when they were headless and articulated in ways that ignored the proportions of the body, they took full advantage of our tendency to read vertical forms as confrontational standing figures. Similarly, Barré’s horizontal sculptures of those years, while frequently among his most abstract, also demanded to be read as reclining figures, perhaps because of the context provided by their vertical counterparts; even his deeply sliced, recurrent bird images seemed conflated with the silhouettes of angular dancers, knees sharply bent and arms thrust backward overhead, like half-raised wings. 

At the same time, the poised symmetry of these structures, like the clarity and crispness of their development in space, invoked not only the body, but also archaic sculptures and artifacts. Plainly, this is not unique to Barré; all works of art are, on some level, about other works of art. Plainly, too, Barré is neither an ironic appropriation artist nor one motivated by a desire to make objects that make us think primarily about their connection the tradition of sculpture. Yet there is always something about the relationship of his work to other works of art (and sometimes, non-art) that suggests a third way to have begun this essay: that it is increasingly clear that Barré has not been engaged in a dialogue with the past, but in a lively argument of the sort one might have with a respected mentor or family member whose influence has become suffocating. He has never repudiated the sources that formed and nourished him – rather he has celebrated them – but he has also struggled against them and succeeded in finding an equilibrium between cultural inheritance and self that makes his recent works the most mysterious and personal of his career. 

These recent efforts contrast dramatically with what preceded them. Barré’s flame-cut steel sculptures of the first half of the 1990s were usually large, massive, aggressive in their claims to space, and, because they depended on silhouettes and profiles, asserted their origins as flat, thick steel plates; Barré’s recent work plays on swelling volumes and full-bodied enclosures. His earlier large-scale steel pieces often responded to particular sites and spaces; many of his newest works are small, apparently easy to grasp and move. Far from being connected to (sometimes literally) a specific place, they have an independent existence, at once self-sufficient and aleatory. Even their positioning can seem temporary, allowing for the possibility of other placements, other orientations. 
Many of his recent works are the size of domestic objects, both ancient and recent, “primitive” and sophisticated. They share many of the physical characteristics of specifically functional things but they also imply an all-encompassing, non-specified usefulness. They read as ambiguous objects that are nevertheless emphatically in the category of man-made, willed things, more powerfully redolent of human presence than the most overtly figurative of Barré’s earlier works. It is as though he had achieved a intensified degree of allusiveness by offering imagery at one remove. The body is present by implication, neither depicted, nor abstracted from, but instead translated into resonant, multivalent metaphor. We are constantly reminded of the characteristics of the body by these sculptures, but we are never presented with a direct reference to the appearance of the figure.

     

    The scale of these works, like the scale of the ordinary things they evoke, derives from the scale of the body, so that as we study them, they transform themselves from non-specific objects into surrogates for the figure and its properties. Some evoke tools or objects that can be held. Vessel-like forms recall cupped hands. Helmet-like shapes suggest the skull they are designed to protect. And so on. Such associations are enhanced by surfaces marked by the traces of deliberate touches, reminders of rhythmic, repetitive processes that may have less to do with a tradition of modeling than with Buddhist meditation.

     

    By distancing himself from the theme that has preoccupied him from the start of his life as a sculptor, by shifting his attention from the human figure itself to the modest products of human endeavor, Barré has gained a kind of liberation. He is increasingly able to make use in his work of his strongest feelings, including those about his own body, his way of being in the world, without entirely revealing himself. There are precedents, of course, within the work of other artists, notably the psychologically charged tabletop dramas enacted by Morandi’s humble still life objects. A close parallel exists, too, in the way Matisse frequently used his own sculptures and figure paintings as starting points, substituting the contemplation of thoroughly known objects one step removed from the living figure, already translated into art, for direct observation of the model. 

II

    Barré’s small works often seem oddly unstable, their placement and grouping subject to change. This helps to separate them from what Arthur Danto calls “mere real things,” not only because ordinary utensils and vessels usually function in a single position, but also because their implied mobility emphasizes the artist’s will. Barré’s wall-hung sheet rubber sculptures carry this willfulness even further; they are clipped together in a fashion that deliberately calls attention to the possibility of un-making the piece. As we attempt to understand how the sheet has been manipulated and to grasp its relationship to other works in the series, we become aware of the sculpture’s potential return to uninflected flatness. The three-dimensional object begins to read not as a declaration of sculptural form, but as a momentary, provisional creation, an indeterminate volume endlessly subject to revision.

     

    Something similar obtains in both Barré’s large sculptures and in his wall drawings. In both, the eye is made to move in distinct steps, forced to take the measure of each of the cast iron volumes in small increments, or to recapitulate the additive process of drawing with a series of repetitive touches. We become increasingly aware of the relationship of the length, mass, and bulk of each shape or form to our own dimensions, which returns us, once again, to the realm of the body, here made even more abstract than in the small bronzes, but no less resonant. The body is, in turn, disembodied in the wall drawings, which are generously scaled, wing-like shapes made with repeated, overlapping strokes, apparently pushed out from an unspecified beginning point. Their incremental quality has cognates in the gestures with which Barré builds his bronzes, but in the presence of the sculptures, large or small, the big, arc-ing shapes of the drawings begin to read like opened-out solids or diagrams for angular volumes, returning us to (imagined) issues of making and, by extension, to the hand.

     

    Barré’s themes, not surprisingly, have remained virtually unchanged since the beginning of his life as a sculptor. His ways of giving form to his continuing obsessions have altered greatly over the years, gradually shifting away from reference towards metaphor, but paradoxically, gaining in evocative meaning the more he moves away from explicit allusion. There have been many factors contributing to this evolution, some intensely private and personal, others more readily documented. Most notable, perhaps, is Barré’s close friendship with Georges Jeanclos. The older sculptor’s example, his idiosyncratic, powerfully expressive images, seem to have given the younger “permission” to follow new paths, to probe more deeply the concerns manifest in his present series. While they in no way resemble Jeanclos’s exquisitely fragile figurative sculptures, Barré’s recent works seem to share with his late friend’s an exploration of the nature of allusion. They embody elusive notions of change, instability, growth, and perhaps even decay. The best of Barré’s animated inanimate objects claim our attention by being at once familiar and unlike anything we know, and they seem to acquire additional layers of meaning the more time we spend with them. The small works become ritual vessels, trophies, reminders of significant events from some unknown, unknowable civilization. They become memories of bodies, discarded carapaces of unnameable creatures, silent reminders of something once vital, now moved elsewhere, all testimony to the power of human intelligence and feeling.

     

     

    Karen Wilkin

     

     

    * A return to intimacy with objects that are nearly domestic, that can be held in one’s hand, hung on a nail or placed on a worktable – little precious sculptures, nearly pots, nearly archaeological fragments – ambiguity between object and sculpture, humble forms in luxurious materials, bronze treated as something rough and earthy, tin with the richness of simple utensils.

    This text is taken from the brochure accompanying the exhibition of Vincent Barré at the New York Studio School, November 21, 2002 to January 11, 2003.