Per Barclay: House of Oil and Water June 28 – September 28, 2019

Norwegian artist Per Barclay presented three bodies of work at the Redwood in the summer of 2019: a site-specific commission, Oil Room(Redwood) (2019) in Abraham Redwood’s eighteenth-century summer house; Untitled (2018), a 7-foot glass house where pumped water sloshes gently and rhythmically around the interior walls and ceilings in Redwood’s Delivery Room; and monumental photographs that document his earlier site-specific installations in the Peirce Prince Gallery. These include a library reflected with stunning clarity in a mirror of oil Rue Visconti # 14 (2010, above), a Swiss bank vault seemingly floating atop it, La Banque, Geneve, 2005, and other oily interventions.

Oil Room(Redwood) transformed the original floor of the summer house into a dark mirror – a viscous pool of oil – that reflected incoming light through the windows, even as it might prompt questions about our complicated dependency on this “black gold.” The transparency of glass house, Untitled, offered a visual counter to the opacity of oil, yet the core content of the work – the diminishing resource of water – probed similar questions of sustainability. Moreover, Barclay sees the glass structure as “an extension” of his oil rooms in that both deny the audience the possibility of entry, forcing them to inhabit the space outside, and attenuating a tactile, olfactory and sensory experience into a purely optical one. As he puts it: “to some extent, the greenhouse is a three-dimensional version of the oil room where the continuous relationship between the inside and outside, the active and the passive, always is present.”

Barclay’s work poses oil as mirror onto the underside of late modernity, pooling it into a literal and metaphoric ground that invites us to pause, and to behold this omnipresent, but largely invisible substance that powers our lives. The artist, by displacing a substance of the present into a structure from the past, calls attention to the shape and history of specific, culturally embedded architectural forms, such as a summer house, or a greenhouse. If the summer house is an emblem of Newport leisure, the Victorian greenhouse, stuffed with tropical specimens, embodies the extraction of resources driving today’s consumer culture.

Curtaor: Leora Maltz-Leca, Ph.D.

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