Sara Barker And Ryder Architecture
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
15 November 2013 - 2 March 2014
Review by Michael Mulvihill
The ‘Subtle Knife’ 2013 is the title of Sara Barker and Ryder Architecture’s collaborative commission at Baltic. It refers to Philip Pullman’s novel of the same name that depicts a theoretical blade so fine it can slice through the ‘membrane’ that separates dimensions. This ‘subtle knife’ could have been a tool used to build Barker and Ryder’s site specific glass and brass sculpture that slices and refracts the splendid volume of Baltic’s newly restructured Level 2 gallery.
Barker’s sculptures are constructed using a combination of painting and jewellery-making techniques that explore a lightness of gesture. Her work is suspended between the formal pillars of drawing, painting and sculpture, and for this site-specific collaboration Barker has produced a piece of profound architectural elegance. The work soars upwards into the large cubic space, while its expanses of tough glass cut the geometry of the gallery. Yet there is a sense that these cuts seem to enact upon space, evident along the edges of the glass where light is split into a spectrum of colour. The work could have been dreamt by the idealist imagination of a modernist, but at the same time the work operates as a post-modern cipher to this modern dreamer.
Barker’s commission partners Ryder Architecture may have been that dreamer. They were founded in 1953 as Ryder and Yates, and their practice has made significant contributions to Newcastle’s modernist architectural vision with Norgas House (1965, now demolished) and the British Gas Engineering Research Station (1967), along with Ralph Erskine’s Byker Estate, and Owen Luder’s (also demolished) Brutalist icon Trinity Square Car Park. The latter is known locally as the Get Carter car park after the scene in Mike Hodges ‘Get Carter’ (1972) in which a corrupted local businessman is thrown from its roof - a scene that could be read as an analogy for the corruption of self styled modern Northern dreamer and local politician T Dan Smith. Smith was jailed for making illicit gains from building contracts awarded for Newcastle’s redevelopment and so drew bitter scepticism over the region’s modernist project.
However, while the modernist Northern dream may have been besmirched by the corruption of T Dan Smith, Barker and Ryder’s ‘Subtle Knife’ 2013 evokes the dreaming and progressive vision of Ryder Architecture’s roots in the European high modernism of Le Corbusier and Berthold Lubetkin. This is a work of rare poise and beauty, that entrances the viewer with both its precision and economy, as well as fantasy and whimsy that dares to dream the dream.