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20th February 2019

Exhibition review: Simeon Barclay – Life Room

Theo Bennett reviews Simeon Barclay’s latest exhibition at the Holden Gallery at Manchester School of Art, which explores how culture shapes our identities.
Exhibition review: Simeon Barclay – Life Room
Credit: The Holden Gallery

Simeon Barclay is a Huddersfield-raised, Leeds-based artist whose most recent exhibition, Life Room, is currently on display at The Holden Gallery in Manchester School of Art. The exhibition offers a fairly eclectic mix of work, even when looked at simply from a material standpoint – a quick glance around the room and you’ll notice acrylic panels, engravings upon aluminium, and a couple of instances of glowing neon lights being employed in the presented pieces.

This seeming adaptability when it comes to using different materials perhaps makes sense considering Barclay’s background in manufacturing. Indeed, many of the pieces in Life Room seem to possess a somewhat industrial feel and aesthetic. The square and rectangular shapes, the use of metal, the pervasive colour palette of greys, silvers, and blues, and the prevalence of stencilled text create an overall sense that the environments of factories and workrooms are a source of inspiration for Barclay.

The objective of Life Room, according to Barclay himself, is to draw on “an ongoing interest in how we develop our sense of self, how culture and tradition, as well as personal experience, shape our identities.” The exhibition incorporates images from a diverse range of sources. Vogue magazine models, soap actors, footballers, characters from comics such as The Viz and The Beano. The seeming lack of an immediately apparent relatedness between the figures we see represented is actually the strongest contributing factor in providing Life Room with its sense of individuality and personality. Taken as a whole, they construct an image of a person, of the artist.

Each work can be seen as a snapshot of a memory or experience from Barclay’s past, an image imprinted on his consciousness, which are brought together to create a kind of abstract self-portrait, defined in terms of the culture he’s absorbed throughout his life. It’s interesting to come across art which defines identity in relation to imagery and culture created by others. Barclay’s work succeeds in paying tribute to the work of creators that have come before him whilst also being undeniably personal in its own right.

Despite this, there still appears to be a lot that Barclay leaves unsaid in his work. Barclay is a black man from a predominantly working-class West Yorkshire town, and his art certainly explores all of these different facets that make up a person’s identity: race, gender, social, and regional background. However, generally, this is done in a way that’s more implicit than explicit. Barclay leaves a lot of scope for audiences to form their own interpretations of the pieces on show. It’s an exhibition that’s more rewarding the more time you spend thinking about it and is certainly worth viewing.

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