This is a stunning solo show by Barbara Steinberg - an artist who by her own admission is comfortable working in what some consider to be the unfashionable medium of oil paint and who deserves the Signal Gallery’s description of her as a painter’s painter.
Chris Garlick, director at Signal, claims to have founded the gallery in order to showcase contemporary painting, and Barbara was one of the first painters he promoted. He is therefore really pleased to have her back for a solo show now. On the gallery's website, Chris describes Barbara’s work as having to be seen to be believed, and I can see what he means: the paintings are much richer and more vibrant when viewed in person, and they have an interesting recessive depth that cannot be fully experienced through digital viewing.
When I asked Steinberg herself about the title of the show she explained that she was reflecting on ancient lands, going back beyond history and sensing some sort of memory that is formless and yet collective to human experience. I found this to be true from the first painting encountered in this exhibition, Origin (2011), an evocative piece that reflects the show's title. The pale background seems to form a still space, while different emotions are articulated within the colourful forms in the foreground, like some emergent bubbling cauldron of ideas suggesting that Steinberg is reaching for something intangible through her painting. This idea pervades the paintings in this show, uniting them and emerging in different ways.
Steinberg is very much concerned with light and the way it changes not only through the day but also through the seasons. She works only from March to November stating that at other times, there simply isn’t enough light to work with. Midsummer (2011) is an explosion of summer colour - pale blues, greens and reds. The pale blue forms a frame for the painting: a device that can be seen as something of a motif for Steinberg, especially when viewing so many of her paintings in a solo show such as this one. The frame gives a quality of recession which Steinberg then overlays with central action. There is so much going on in the painting as you are drawn into the central focus, the colours and forms seem to fill you with ideas of the brightness of summer in the turquoise, vibrancy and growth through the density of application and a redolence of warm summer evenings from an orange sky.
I was drawn to Witches in the Wood (2011), a very dark piece - truly the internet does not do its depth justice. The title is suggestive of the collective fear we all feel of the darkness and the unknown that is emulated in the piece. Steinberg’s framing devices are here, but in a much more fragmented way, suggesting an equally fragmented emotional state. The black and blue broad brushes of dripping paint create an impenetrable thicket for the background while in the centre the viewer encounters a whirl of vibrant, phantasmic energy.
Moving back into the main display space I discussed Elegy (2011) with the artist. This is a visually stunning piece of work, and the recessive quality Steinberg has achieved through her painting technique is enchanting. She explained that landscape has been an influence on her work and here I see it rearticulated into the expression of an interior landscape through her engagement with the medium of oil paint. The painting pulls the viewer into its space to meander softly through its abstract dialogues and Steinberg herself suggested that there was a sense of finality about this piece. Certainly in contrast to other paintings in the show, which are filled with energy and vibrancy, there is a stillness and peacefulness here that inclines me to agree with her.
This is a great compact show, and I agree with the curator’s view that it showcases Steinberg at her maturity. She has used the medium of oil paint to express the human condition on many different levels, and her techniques serve to imprint her approach and unify the show as that of a solo artist.