The universe disintegrates…but within this irreversible process there may be areas of order…privileged points in which we seem to discern a design or a perspective.
Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium
The one key aspiration of any artist is to develop a distinctive style. It is a privilege few enjoy, but Oliver Barratt has managed it. One glance at a piece of his and it is immediately recognizable, instantly familiar as a ‘Barratt’. Postmodern and playful, but never merely cute, at the same time both delicate and monumental, riddling and simple, his work is sui generis, and this latest exhibition reaffirms that fact.
There are, I think, three main characteristics that identify Oliver’s sculptures. The first is the sense of scale that his gloopy shapes allude to. His work seems keyed at once to galactic largeness and infinitesimal smallness. ‘There is,’ as Vladimir Nabokov said, ‘in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place…a point arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic.’ Oliver Barratt seems to embody this artistic vision in his sculptures; his pieces seem at one moment to gesture at subatomic particles and in the next to hint at abysmal stretches of space and time.
The second characteristic feature of Oliver’s work involves the negotiation between stillness and movement. Many of his pieces seem conceived at moments of connection or disconnection. In their elegance, instants of motion seem fused, frozen, arrested, with dynamic swirls of energy being wrestled and captured as in a snapshot. If Paul Klee is said to have taken the line for a walk, then Oliver Barratt seems to take the line for a violent dance.
The third feature that typifies the works on display is the polished, boldly monochromatic finish. The shapes seem to evoke congealments. Matter transforms from liquid to solid, as in ‘Along Those Lines’. The structures at first appear fragile, yet the impression one gains close up is one of robustness. Smooth, burnished, blood-red, white or ultramarine, there is here a tensile strength and muscularity, an elemental toughness – cellular, seminal, endlessly regenerative. But rather than being too neatly closed, many of the sculptures remain open as the substructure is exposed, a steel bone stripped of its skin of resin, lending a final quality of rawness.
These three features – the elastic sense of scale, the poise between motion and stillness, and the monochrome polish and strength – when combined, produce Oliver’s signature pieces. They are numinously beautiful, redolent of heat yet supremely cool. They range from intricate, Escheresque constructions, combinations of squares and circles, to linear squiggles and globular clusters. While the sculptures are abstract in form, they are nevertheless endlessly suggestive, with elements of representation leaking through. ‘Making the Point 1’ hints at a menacing, pincered creature; a caged presence recalls Francis Bacon’s Screaming Popes, and a hapless skier is wittily engineered.
By turns complex, playful, sexy even, these are works of tremendous artistry. While effortlessly contemporary, the pieces on display here never rely on pastiche for their effects. Instead they achieve a kind of authenticity. They command attention; they are irresistible. So be warned: you will want to stroke them. You will want to admire them both from up close and from afar. You will want to own them. And if you do acquire one of these pieces, what you will have is something unique. You will possess a bit of the universe that is unmistakably a Barratt.