Barrie Szekely: Yardsquare

Barrie Szekely: YardSquare

[Written for the Slide Room Gallery, March 2011. In its published form, the last sentence (pertaining to Anne Carson) was omitted.]

“…what’s exciting to me is if I can just catch anything in this great mass that’s turning, turning around. You see, it’s a world apart from language, I mean, the way a real writer would use words.

[…] “I would like to use a child’s hiccups held far off like water dripping as a component of my frame.”

–          Richard Tuttle (1.)

There is a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti called “The Palace at 4AM” that features a series of cryptic forms that look like the parings of known things: a bird skeleton, a spinal column, a chess piece, a ball tipping in a shallow elliptical groove like the gall bladder resting against its liver…Not as themselves but vestigial gestures, rinds curing in the night mind’s swelter and chill. The palace might be an art museum, a treasure house of precious objects estranged from origins, gathered in greed, fiat & caprice, left alone to their histories in the dark of an abandoned castle of matchsticks. It might also be a birdhouse: wing-pinion, spine, organ and queen being more fluid or obdurate states of mind; thoughts in & out of flight.

The objects in Barrie Szekely’s paintings entail similar flip-sides of serviceable and mutable language: they are both facts that emerge into the conspicuous gloss of viewership and/or coordinates intuited in fugitive trace-making. Layered onto the wooden panels day by day, up against void (black ground) or open grain, they form into more stolidly actual pictorial propositions as they develop, but also, conversely (like mislaid names’ mnemonic tokens) less specifically accounted for as things in the world. Intimacy hovers like a tactile reprove; contingencies become paramount. Negative spaces enact unanticipated symmetries. Is that the hungry mouth of an empty glass or the flush, translucent bottom of a jar of jam? Usually something seems left out, as if an object had first acquired a reflection and then disappeared completely, its apparition (like an afterimage) lingering for a moment, a kind of backward salutation from the looking glass.

In Szekely’s studio, which also resembles a workroom, and also a garage, the wilted husk of a seed head sits on a bench waiting to be picked up and considered. After a time in that relatively dim locale it may lose its burden of task at hand and become a more or less ambient fixture between haphazard basement architecture and the behavioural & definitional perimeters of painting space. Consider the moral instruction of still life painting, the way it segregates personal, perceptual, and present-tense. W.H. Auden reminds us that it is not Keats who insists, “Truth is Beauty, beauty truth” but the urn itself (the poet just indicates that it’s what we know, and it’s enough.) Objects trained through the latticework of poetry know a life independent of perception; they are themselves. In Szekely’s paintings, this stubborn nowness is not a problem to overcome in making work; it is the primary condition for working. Working itself might be only another condition, for walking. (What is walking for?)

Rosalind Krauss has pointed out that the grid is the inevitable, self-concealing matrix of twentieth century art. Never seen before its advent, but afterwards, discovered again and again, and each time the artist “always taking it up as though he were just discovering it, as though the origin he had found by peeling back layer after layer of representation to come at last to this schematized reduction, this graph-paper ground, were his origin, and his finding it an act of originality.”(2.) But Krauss has also described the grid as, “a prison” in which the artist feels at liberty in searching for origins, but challenged in making something new from that beginning, in exercising that liberty, in adding more to what has already been said (3.)

The job of that freedom -to propose yard to studio, to tolerate and integrate shifts of scale and weather, to tether loose form to pattern, inhering call and response- necessitates a chronic absentmindedness. A tool is abandoned in one corner of the yard and its absence begins to weigh invisibly, inevitably elsewhere…Over several seasons, a pocket of oblivion forms, fallow and granular as a pillow cast from dirt. Thoughts in the house, the yard, the neighbourhood undergo gradual alchemical envelopment as indifference oxidizes, hatching pigmentations.

In his poem “Voyelles” Arthur Rimbaud famously gave each vowel a colour (“A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue”) conjuring a state of synaesthesia that also hinted at a chain of being from word to world – “I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins”- in which each letter conveys a terrain of evocation and animation (‘A’ for instance is black, “bright flies” and also “gulfs of shadow”.) (4.) These inventions as interventions are part of the morphological tug of Szekely’s peculiar creation, but they are not so much beginning as suspended, to be observed with a patience and practice that unites artist and materials, seed head to brush stroke. Habits of the mind, they are husbanded in what Anne Carson calls “Decreation”(5.), an undoing of continuity, a movement, not without desire, towards something less sentient.

  1. Quoted by Bob Holman, “The Artists Voice Since 1981”, Bomb Magazine BOMB 41/Fall 1992 online at
  2. Rosalind E. Krauss “The Originality of the Avant-Garde”, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986 158.
  3. Krauss 160.
  4. Arthur Rimbaud, “Voyelles”, trans. Paul Schmidt, (New York: Harper Perennial), 2000
  5. Anne Carson, Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (New York: Vintage, 2006). Carson’s use of this term derives from Simone Weil, as explored by James Pollock in his review, “Anne Carson and The Sublime”,

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