Sophie Barber’s canvases drape tentatively across the floor at Goldsmith’s Centre for Contemporary Art. Repurposed from old paintings and materials within her studio in Hastings, Barber’s works suggest child-like fortresses or half-completed patchwork quilts, laid bare for inspection. With its excitable superlatives and hyperbole, ‘The Greatest Song a Songbird Ever Sung’ invites its viewer to group these works together as a foray into the faux-naif style; these works make no secret of their influence by the likes of Philip Guston and Rose Wylie. Barber’s manipulation of space, scale and colour, prove to be more captivating, however, than any of her painterly footnotes.
Barber hails from East Sussex and makes references to the beige, stone-covered coastlines at Hythe and Pett throughout her paintings. She received the Platform Graduate Award upon her graduation from Brighton University in 2017, and has exhibited in seven group shows across south east England since — ‘The Greatest Song a Songbird Ever Sung’ is Barber’s first solo show in London, and the fifth iteration of the CCA’s ‘Episodes’ series. Advertised as a “counter-point to larger exhibitions”, ‘Episodes’ comprises a group of solo shows that offer an experimental space for new forms to emerge within artistic practices.
Using a palette of burnt ochre and salmon-pink, Barber’s canvases contain enclosures with small, dark openings, and upper-case captions akin to tarot card readings. The works on display here are indicative of a painter who is interested in things and perhaps ‘thingness’, when defined as an inclination towards materiality: a very particular type of artwork where materials form both substance and subject. ‘Birds Sing at Chapel’ (2020) and ‘Hiding at Hythe’ (2020), draw attention to the mysterious nature of Barber’s show as neither bird nor beach appear within the paintings, despite their titles.
Perhaps heightened by the impressive social distancing measures and one-way system in place at Goldsmith’s CCA, it’s hard to resist developing a feeling of anticipation when walking through each gallery to get to Barber’s installation. ‘The Greatest Song a Songbird Ever Sung’ is neatly placed at the heart of the building, but expectation grows as parts of Barber’s solo show can be glimpsed from the first floor. From this perspective, the sheer scale and enormity of Barber’s works come into full effect. There are three large-scale paintings — ‘Birds Sing at Chapel’, ‘Hyding at Hythe’ and ‘The Greatest Song a Songbird Ever Sung’ (2020) — across three of the gallery’s cavernous walls, while a group of miniature paintings on the fourth wall depict covers of ‘ArtReview’ magazine. The rough surfaces of each painting appear like crustaceans formed on the bottom of a boat, barnacles overlapping one another. Barber’s smaller paintings are both striking and full of charm; they’re made from left-over canvas, sculpted into pebble-shaped oblongs that are treated with delicacy and care.
Barber has compared her piecemeal painting technique to the need to find an adoptive home for a stray dog. Through the evolution of her practice she has been interested in the mystifying features of birds of paradise and the culture of New Guinea, and focused on subjects as expansive as the surface of the moon. ‘The Greatest Song a Songbird Ever Sung’ offers Barber a space in which to test out and manipulate different materials and styles; mixing the neutral tone of canvas, recalling the textures taken from the natural world, with the highly synthesised palette of oil paint. Barber’s works offer an insight into the labour of painting as her sculptural surfaces droop onto the floor, toying with the interplay between the artwork and its horizontal environment.