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Francis Upritchard: Wetwang Slack - The Curve, Barbican Centre

Exhibition preview

THIS autumn, marking the 30th Curve commission at the Barbican, New Zealand born and London-based artist Francis Upritchard has conceived of a new, site-specific installation.

Drawing from both figurative sculpture and craft traditions – ceramics, tapestry, glassblowing to enamelling – Francis Upritchard pushes these practices in new directions, bringing them together to create a striking and original visual language of her own.

Francis Upritchard: Wetwang Slack opens in The Curve on Thursday, September 27, 2018 and will be on display until January 6, 2019.

Playing with scale, colour and texture, Upritchard has approached The Curve as three separate ‘galleries,’ each populated by a spectrum of different materials and vibrant figures and objects.

The first contains large, brightly coloured polymer clay sculptures in various poses, bedecked in hand-made garments supported by plinths. In contrast, the second gallery has a series of bespoke metal and glass shelves suspended from the ceiling, displaying small-scale works in bronze, glass and over-sized shirt tapestries.

The large figures displayed in the final section are sculpted from balata, a natural rubber harvested in Brazil, and are based on the Japanese folklore characters of Ashinaga-tenaga (Long Legs and Long Arms), who extol the virtues of harmonious working relationships.

Francis Upritchard said: “I’m envisaging an exhibition which works with the brutalist Barbican architecture with stone, wood, glass and metal – brutal but rational with my delicate, strange and sometimes colourful works atop. I’ve been thinking about The Curve as offering a kind of rainbow-light spectrum that plays with distortion and scale.”

Known for her array of archetypal figures in varying sizes from medieval knights to meditating futuristic hippies, these tantalising forms are hand-modelled in polymer clay, their skins painted in a range of monochromatic colours or distinct gridded patterns as if from an otherworldly tribe. Hand-woven blankets, tie-dyed silks and bespoke garments often decorate these deftly made sculptures which are frequently combined with found objects.

Upritchard also regularly creates sculptural installations of utilitarian objects from vases, plates, lamps or urns often imbued with anthropomorphic forms and carefully arranged into mysterious domestic environments. More recently, she has experimented with both form and material, creating a group of dinosaurs out of papier-mâché or extracts from rubber trees in Brazil which have been displayed on elegant tables manufactured by the Italian company Olivetti.

For The Curve commission, Upritchard is working with Fine Cell Works to embroider the oversized shirt tapestries. FCW is a therapeutic programme which teaches creative needlework skills to prisoners promoting self-esteem and discipline. Upritchard will also work with designer Martino Gamper to create bespoke steel and glass shelving and plinths for the sculptures, as well as the glass artist, Jochen Holz.

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican, said: “It is with great pleasure that we are welcoming Francis Upritchard to devise a new installation. Our thirtieth commission, Upritchard is the latest in an exciting lineage of contemporary artists, such as Tomas Saraceno, rAndom International, Richard Mosse, Yto Barrada, and many more, who have exhibited in our unique space.

“I am especially excited to see an installation of figurative sculpture and have no doubt that Upritchard’s cast of remarkable characters will occupy The Curve space in an entirely magical way, demonstrating her imaginative approach and sensitivity to materials.”

Previous works include Upritchard’s provocative installation, Traveller’s Collection (2003), in which she created a tomb-like cabinet of curiosities, influenced by both Ancient Egypt and Maori cultures. Her installation Rainwob I & II (2007) similarly saw Upritchard drawing inspiration from different historical periods, whereby her small, handmade, colourful figures were based on 15th century wooden sculptures to 1970s photographs of revellers at Glastonbury Festival.

Upritchard represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2009 with her installation Save Yourself in which she created an imaginary landscape of figures and structures, placed on recycled wooden table tops. More recently, a survey of the last two decades of her work entitled Jealous Saboteurs was presented at the Monash University Museum, Melbourne, Australia; Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand and Dunedin Public Art Gallery, New Zealand in 2016–17.

Image: Installation view of A Long Wait, 2012, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati. Photograph by Daylight Photo © Francis Upritchard, courtesy Kate MacGarry, London.