In a moment
Layers of time, mythology and memory in the work of Catherine Barron
by Gemma Tipton
Digital photography has changed the shape of our memories. Instant editing and deleting excludes odd expressions, cropped bodies, closed eyes and those images of us as we would rather not see ourselves. Digital photography has made the lasting record of a time past, ephemeral. The nature of old photographic equipment as well as its delivery has also had its effect. The photographer no longer needs the sun at their back, so subjects are more seldom seen to squint, and the patterns of light and shade are different. If old photographs are a set of moments from the past, they also represent a different way of looking, and of remembering.
Catherine Barron’s examination of old family photographs has its roots in a family tragedy. Her sister, Mary G, died from a brain tumour in 1972, when the artist was just six years old. The family had recently moved house, before Mary G became ill, and so, as Barron remembers it, “it was like two lives, two worlds, two spaces. Before and after.”
The photographs come through the maternal line in the Barron family, and represent a route back to that time before. Yet, when it comes to capturing either movement or a moment, photography is deceitful, giving a distorted impression of time and space.
The time represented by a photograph is not simply a moment in the past caught on film: its period is the fraction of a second for which the camera aperture is open. Thus, photographs are unable to replicate the quality of seeing, for not only is there composition and exclusion within the frame of the photograph, but also, in life, the eye cannot not see a fraction of a second’s stillness. Our idea of the still image comes from a personal editing of moving data.
If photography captures a slightly skewed sense of time, so too, though in a different way, does painting. The period of a representational painting is different from that of a photograph. It is the time taken to apply paint, brushstroke by brushstroke. This could be hours, days, weeks, and so those images that seem paused on the point of dynamic action are equally illusory, the fresh flowers and fruit in a still life will have decayed long before the painting is completed, and the artist has employed as many strategies of framing, exclusion and editing as the photographer. But if the moment of a photograph is a split second, and the moment of a painting is of longer duration, the culmination of time is the period we, as viewers, choose to spend looking.
Barron’s practice of working from photographs began with oil on canvas, the processes of painting being a way of, as she says, painting her sister back, seeing again and adding colour to memories before they became too distorted by the fading confusion of memory.
By moving from oil on canvas to acrylic ink on MDF, Barron was able to catch the faded shades and colours of old pictures, using the nature of MDF to leave negative space, gaps and absences. A more recent move to sheet metal brings another perspective to the process. The metal, recovered from a working plant, is stressed, distressed, has rusted and deteriorated in parts, making it, in Barron’s words, “like life itself”. Partnering the weight of metal with acrylic inks, applied slowly, layer on layer, becomes a meditation on the fragile and the solid, weight and light, the temporal and the permanent.
It also provides the artist with a new way of seeing. It is an attempt to capture both the dynamics of looking, and the dynamics of making; to extend the period of the photograph, and multiply the moments at which it may be completed.
Parents reappear as friends, lovers, young people with different, almost unknowable lives. Some figures are familiar, some almost forgotten, and yet, even to those who do not know the depicted family, the images all carry a sense of the fleeting knowable.
Barron’s skill has made the specifics of her own history stand too for a sense of a shared collective era now fled. Composition creates atmosphere, differences highlighted in brushstrokes and uses of paint, and surface attractiveness sometimes sacrificed for what grabs the essential element of what the image is. The best way to look at them is with emotion as well as intellect engaged. It is portraiture, but a portraiture of time and memory, rather than of individual subjects.
The real moment of these images then is to be understood in terms of what they represent, and how they are to be seen as a reflection of, or comment on, the real, comes from a fusion of times: the time of existance, the time of making, the time of memory, and the time of forgetting.
John Berger suggests that a painting is only finished, “not when it finally corresponds to something already existing – like the second shoe of a pair – but when the foreseen ideal moment of its being looked at is filled, as the painter feels or calculates it ought to be.” (1)
The ideal moment of Barron’s family photographs being looked at is, perhaps, the moment that her artist’s eye chooses to draw them back into the world. And the ideal moment of these paintings? Maybe that is when we look properly at them, and in their painted worlds discover a refreshed sense of our own parents, partners, memories. Those forgotten things that try to reach forward into the present as they make up the patterns of our past, half-lost lives.
Gemma Tipton is a writer and critic on art and architecture. She is currently Guest Artistic Director of Kinsale Arts Week.
(1) Berger, J., And our faces my, my heart, brief as photos, Pantheon, New York, 1984. p. 26
Born in Co. Carlow, Catherine Barron studied at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Tecnology. She has two children aged 12 and 8 and lives with her partner in Co. Kilkenny.
July 2011 - Molesworth Gallery, Dublin, Solo Show
June/July 2011 - RHA Annual Exhibition
December 2010- Molesworth Gallery, Group Show
July 2010 - Kinsale Arts Week, Cork, Invited Artist
Joint exhibition with Eithne Jordan and John Doherty
June/July 2010 - RHA Annual Exhibition
November 2009 - Waterfront Gallery Westport, Solo Show
August 2009 - Kilkenny Arts Festival, Group Show
November 2008 - RHA Annual Exhibition
August 2008 - Blackbird Gallery, Kilkenny, Group Show
December 2007 - Molesworth Gallery, Dublin, Winter Group Show
June 2007 - RHA Annual Exhibition
May 2007 - Wexford Opera Festival, Group Show
December 2005 - Solomon Gallery, Dublin, Group Show