Waxing Profound

Estella Shardlow 13 October 2007

Rebecca Barnard

Cambridge Contemporary Art

October 5-28

The natural landscape is a decorative and emotive vessel for artist Rebecca Barnard, whose sensitively observed and optimistic paintings celebrate the variety and transitory nature of our surrounding scenery. Perhaps this in part evolved as a result of her rural upbringing (both her parents were farmers) and extensive travels around Europe and Australia. Yet the specific locations themselves are not the artist’s foremost concern; rather it is the practice of internalising and translating them into an image, the subjective and creative process that she terms a “highly stimulating voyage of discovery”. Thus, certain aspects of the scenery are often exaggerated and worked up for their expressive potential. For example, in Sheep, Moorland II the horizon is raised so one hillside looms large and its tangible surface of mottled turquoise and orange impasto dominates the composition.

Such scenes recall the Romantic artist Samuel Palmer’s pastoral visions, whilst the influence of Impressionism runs through Barnard’s paintings, in the observation of changing light and seasonal effects. For instance, take the vibrant orange canopies of the Beeches, the pallid snow-covered vistas in Sheep, winter or the intense summer heat conveyed in Bales, Cornwall and Windbreaks. Barnard also joins them in seeking out striking decorative motifs in nature: a fence curling down the hillside or striped silhouette of lines of trees and their reflections. Shadows are a recurrent feature in her compositions, and they are treated as striking natural organic patterns, as colourful and animated as the other surfaces.

The technique Barnard employs, wax encaustic, involves melting wax paste, then mixing with white spirit and oil paint before applying to the canvas with a palette knife. This versatile medium complements the atmospheric nature of her compositions as it may be scratched and scored to evoke the movement and surfaces of water or foliage, or layered thinly to suggest weak sunlight.

Barnard has been commissioned by several corporate clients, and it is clear that the decorative aesthetic and inoffensive, traditional subject matter of her work lends itself to commercial or domestic display. No wonder then that it is being showcased in Cambridge Contemporary Art, a gallery endorsing the nationwide Own Art scheme. This project allows you to borrow between £100 and £2000 to purchase a work of art, which you then repay in interest-free instalments over ten months, with the aim of putting “the arts at the heart of national life” and to “encourage people to live with the art they love”, according to the British Arts Council. Meanwhile, the friendly and unobtrusive approach of the gallery staff breaks from the stereotypical view of such places as stuffy, elitist venues and is instead somewhere anyone can walk into off the street and engage with its creative offerings.

So, as you make your way down Trinity Street, a brief deviation into Cambridge Contemporary Arts is definitely worthwhile. Here you will find a number of windows onto a countryside of brilliant colour and affecting mood–welcome visions outside of the bubble on a drab Michaelmas day.

Estella Shardlow