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Hedwig Barry and the Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction

 - by Anthea Buys


Hedwig Barry, All at Once, 2023, oil on canvas panel, 61 x 46 cm

The first technological breakthrough of early humankind wasn’t a spear or a bludgeon; it was a vessel or a bag, something in which to hold what was foraged, to save it for later. This is how author Ursula K. Le Guin retells the story of our primitive ancestors’ incremental journey out of primatehood, in her 1986 essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. “Before the tool that forces energy outward,” Le Guin writes, “we made the tool that brings energy home.” 

Le Guin tells us that fiction can be like the carrier bag, a receptacle for all sorts of incidentally found things, and I want to venture that the paintings included in Hedwig Barry’s solo exhibition, Unrest, on show at Guns & Rain until 27 October, do the same thing. They too are tools “that [bring] energy home”. Through an abstract language and vivid, associative colour, Barry’s new paintings sidestep the instructive force of representational art, in which the subject pictured tells us how to look and what to see. Her paintings invite us to forage for meaning. 

Indeed, foraging has been an important part of Barry’s practice since she began her artistic career in earnest, in 2019. Her ongoing found-object archive, “Foraging Table”, is a collection of things and materials, mostly natural, that attach her to the places where she finds herself working. The “Foraging Table” is both tactile research and an object-based diary of sorts. Although not exhibited in Unrest, this work of collecting always stands in the wings of Barry’s consciousness, informing the sensibility of the works that find their ways onto the walls, and, importantly, cueing us into the methods we can use to read them. 

Hedwig Barry, Every Frame A Painting - Forest x Mountain Dissolve, 2023, oil on canvas panels, installation view

Barry shares something of the itinerancy of Le Guin’s palaeolithic gatherer, whose orientation in the world depends on routes rather than “roots”, transitions from place to place rather than returns to a fixed point. Without any permanent studio, Barry produced this new body of work in the homes of friends in different parts of South Africa, developing a sense of place in the works, or perhaps a desire for place, through her own shifting experience.  

The family of four large paintings in Unrest are the cardinal points of the show, its anchoring moments, and are titled as such (To the North, To the South, To the East and To the West). They were painted more or less simultaneously, on a covered verandah in the seaside village of Onrus in the Western Cape, during an intense, even frenzied, period of production. “Unrest” is a literal translation of the Afrikaans word “onrus”, and in this respect the title of the exhibition is a direct reference to this particular place.

Despite the lack of recogniseable forms in her works, they always have a backstory, an origin, much like a child is always birthed by mother (even if only in the technical sense). But just as you don’t need to know the mother to know the child, her paintings don’t expressly need their backstories. They are vessels for the viewer’s associations, memories, priorities and desires: they are carrier bags just waiting to be carried. 

Hedwig Barry, Fusion (R) and Ember (L), 2023, oil and spraypaint on canvas, installation view

When I look at the work “To the West”, for example, I think of loose script, of hand-writing a letter and sending it to a friend somewhere in “the West”, Europe or America. I think of sunset in a busy city, the comforting sighs of the subway, of rain evaporating off tarmac as the green man flashes above a pedestrian walkway. All this is what the painting carries for me, even though I know the work was painted facing the open ocean. The methodology of foraging is useful at both ends of the painting - first for the painter and then for the viewer. 

In painting, as in foraging, one needs the following qualities: adaptability, curiosity, prudence, dexterity, cunning, and urgency. The job is always time-sensitive but it always takes time. When Barry sets out to paint she does so loosely expecting, but never really knowing, what she will discover along the way, much less how a work will “turn out”. She takes all her findings with her, on the very canvas that will be the final work, and moves along, but never really leaves an idea or abandons a mark.To cite the title of an earlier work of hers, “Everything is important”. 

Hedwig Barry, To the West, 2023, oil on canvas, 153 x 122 cm

The sometimes overwhelming surfaces that result from this process of iteration, preservation and revision also have a discursive role to play in contemporary painting more generally. They disintegrate the figure-ground convention which is so embedded in our ways of reading the visual. In Western art history, the relationship between figure and ground, or the subject and the background, dominates the entire logic of visuality. The background is always subordinate to, and in service of, the subject, or the “main” content of the painting - the hero, the bearer of the spear or bludgeon. Not coincidentally, this same history has been monopolised by male artists, critics and patrons, and, moreover, by a particularly aggressive way of relating to materials.

Barry’s work gently, even lovingly, undercuts this combative approach to painting. Instead of reiterating the stories in which a foreground subject diminishes the background, she creates all-over paintings in which the ground is at once everywhere and nowhere. Barry often speaks of “grounding” and “groundlessness”, a pair of metaphors which has preoccupied her practice since she embarked on her Masters in Fine Arts in 2019, and connects her work to nature, the earth and our dispositions and technologies for relating to them. 

This is what makes the paintings in Unrest feel so distinctive right now. Barry works with abstraction while the world is tuned to images and representations. She paints from her experience, but not about it. Her thinking is at least as exquisite as the way she handles colour. I would argue that she is a new proponent of a rich and underrated tradition of women painting that stretches back to the mid-twentieth century, if not earlier. Recalling the work of artists such as Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Lynda Benglis, and, more recently, Cecily Brown and Rachel Jones, Barry’s paintings compel us to think about the relationships between form and formlessness, precision and freedom. Wholly immersed in an undertaking that balances intuition, expression, calculation and meticulous calibration, she questions what painting is and does today, how we make meaning from the visual, and what is at stake for those who exist precariously, whether by choice or necessity.  

Further Reading In Articles

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