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  • Clara Chivers (Curator)

Barbara Delaney: A Visit to the Artist's Studio

The Pembroke College JCR Art Fund Collection contains two vibrant paintings in square formats by abstract painter Barbara Delaney (b. 1941), Red River Ever Moving and Like Summer Tempests (1998). We’ll be showing them in January 2019 in Pembroke’s JCR Art Gallery alongside other works from our collection. As we look forward to seeing her canvases back on the walls, I visited the artist in her studio to find out more about the development of her practice since she made these works!

Abstraction is a defining aspect of Delaney’s practice. She understands ‘abstraction’ as getting to the essence of visual sensation. As the 19th century French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé said ‘[what is important, is] not the thing, but the effect it produces’. She continues to make work today in her London-based studio and her pieces are housed in public collections across the UK and further afield, including our neighbouring museum, the Ashmolean!

The artist has a rather instinctual approach and is preoccupied by the contrast of opposites. Speaking of her attitude to painting, she says: ‘I find it exciting to confront pared-down geometric shapes with spontaneous gestural, sometimes recklessly willful, marks and to make these work together as part of a precariously balanced visual orchestration: emotion – just – contained in form.’

Familiar with the relatively intimate works in our collection, I was surprised by the scale of her recent ‘Magic Circles’ series. These large canvases possess an all-encompassing quality; their immediacy setting them apart from Pembroke’s works. But as always, Delaney maintains a characteristically vibrant and assured use of colour.

Into the Blue (2004) has a rhythmic quality, achieved by the artist’s gestural application of paint and enhanced by its spherical form; our eye is drawn towards the centre and then quickly diverted out again. Speaking of her lengthy process of creating a painting, Delaney says: ‘I like the feeling of a gyroscope which is balanced but not quite balanced – where things keep shifting.’ We might apply this in equal measure to our encounter with the final canvas and its pulsating quality.

Circular forms weave their way into much of Delaney’s work, she says: ‘One of the things I like to imply in the circle is an invisible spiral. In other words, where something has momentum, a dynamism, which isn’t repetitive.’ Since the 90's Delaney has been making mixed media collages on paper titled Cocar Series, which showcase her sustained interest in exploring the interplay of geometric forms. She has constructed these using materials such as wood, paper and feathers, which are carefully arranged in circles and arcs. These works do not possess the same spontaneous expression of her canvases, yet, as in her painted works, Delaney continues to negotiate a careful balance of motion and containment.

On reflection, if I was asked to describe her work, past and present, in a single word I’d tell you it was kaleidoscopic. We’re looking forward to reintroducing you to Delaney’s kaleidoscopic world in 2019 in the Pembroke JCR Art Gallery.

Visit the artist’s website to find out more about her work.



Andrew Lambirth, 'Barbara Delaney: Selective Affinities. Paintings and Works on Paper', with foreword by Tim Craven, Southampton City Art Gallery (Southampton, 2005)

Images in order of appearance:

‘Red River Ever Moving’ (1998), acrylic on canvas, 36x36cm, collection Pembroke College, Oxford

‘Like Summer Tempests’ (1998), acrylic on canvas, 36x36cm, collection Pembroke College, Oxford

Barbara Delaney in her studio in 2015, in front of painting 'Amber Light', now in collection Clove Building, London, SE1

‘Into the Blue’ (2000), acrylic on canvas, 137x137cm

‘Cocar - Two Reds and Blue’ (1993) mixed media on paper, 56x76cm, Hertfordshire Art Collection

‘Cocar - Blue’ mixed media on paper, 56x76cm

’Cocar 20.10.92’, mixed media on paper, 56 x 76 cm, collection British Museum

‘Cocar 21.10.92’, mixed media on paper, 56 x 76 cm, collection British Museum

‘Sound Shadows’ (2001/02), acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 137x137cm

© All images courtesy of the artist

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