Summer exhibition opens at the Redwood Library & Athenæum 'Per Barclay: House of Oil and Water'

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Summer exhibition opens at the Redwood Library & Athenæum 'Per Barclay: House of Oil and Water'
Redwood House of Oil Duo.

NEWPORT, RI.- The Redwood Library & Athenaeum, the nation’s first purpose-built library structure and think space, presents Per Barclay: House of Oil and Water. Organized by the Redwood Contemporary Art Initiative (RCAI), the exhibition comprises three interconnected parts: Barclay’s six-foot glass house in the Redwood Delivery Room (Untitled, 2018), a clutch of the artist’s monumental ‘Oil Room’ photographs in the Redwood’s Peirce Prince gallery, and a site specific ‘Oil Room’ installation in Abraham Redwood’s eighteenth-century summer house outside on the Redwood grounds. The exhibition continues the Redwood’s Material Politics project, a three-year slate of contemporary art programming that plumbs the political and social implications of the materials and processes of contemporary art.

Exhibition curator Leora Maltz-Leca comments: “By painting with oil and sculpting with water, Per Barclay displaces the ‘unrefined’ and quotidian materials of daily life into the spaces of ‘refined’ culture. Through his modus operandi of seeping and flooding, Barclay refuses art’s myths of hermetic sealing and transcendental escape: the notion that art can be separated from the world beyond, or that the opalescent sheen of petroleum might be cleansed of its noxious origin. His glass house, a self-enclosed dysfunctional icon of modernism, lampoons this fantasy of self-enclosure – a dream long embodied in the museum no less than the library. The Redwood, whose formation in 1747 was prompted by empiricist philosopher George Berkeley, stands as the archetypal American institution of the Enlightenment. Per Barclay’s materials and the politics they trail with them, describe modernity as extractive and voracious, juxtaposing the Enlightenment’s ideals of scientific progress and empirical knowledge with its disastrous material effects – an inquiry that parallels the Redwood’s own commitment to untangling the double legacy of the Enlightenment.”

Untitled (2018) is a glass and steel ‘greenhouse’ positioned along the Redwood’s central axis—the line that all successive additions to the Redwood’s original structure have followed—thus implanting the structure within an architectural discourse of transparency and neoclassicism consonant with the Redwood’s own history. In this work, pumped water sloshes rhythmically around the greenhouse walls, evoking the specter of the “greenhouse effect” while inviting the viewer to consider the prehistory of today’s ecological predicament through paradigms of colonial exploration and scientific “advance,” presented here in a remake of the archetypal Victorian greenhouse, but one that is barren rather than teeming with tropical specimens extracted under dubious conditions.

If Abraham Redwood’s eighteenth-century summer house—one of the rare extant examples of its kind in America—contrasts an architecture of leisure to the greenhouse’s utility, Barclay’s Oil Room (Redwood) addresses our dependence on this problematic resource (oil). The work pools oil into a literal and metaphoric ground, inviting us to behold this omnipresent but largely invisible substance that powers our lives. Repurposing fuel as paint—as a material of art—Barclay relocates oil into the interior of the summer house through an act of artistic dislocation that pulls it out of the unseen flow of quotidian consumption, distilling it as an image and framing it architecturally. By redefining oil as “art,” Barclay materializes an abstraction into a substance freighted with enormous environmental and social costs, using its reflective properties as a mirror onto the underside of late modernity.

The exhibition concludes with four of Barclay’s signature large-scale photographs documenting various site-specific Oil Rooms (with a new work of the same type derived from the Redwood summer house installation currently in process). Adapting a photograph to the scale and color saturation of a grand manner oil painting, Barclay plays on the double meaning of oil—as material and artistic medium—to offer a compound cautionary tale. Gesturing first to the Old Master lineage of Narcissus paintings, Barclay reminds us of our obsession with surface, the defining element of a painting traditionally conceived as a reflection onto the world. Likewise, the photographs call up the Platonic mistrust of surface, all the while marshalling a very contemporary caution about our society of consumption and the overvaluing of appearance.

“As a public cultural institution we have a duty to be positioned in relation to ethical and political questions. Given the current battles around climate change, it’s important we be aware of the environmental impact of our supply chain—and how much it’s embedded in our colonial past.” said Benedict Leca, Redwood Executive Director. The show continues until September 28th.

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