Private Lives - 2008
by Charles Darwent
Barford’s latest works look like little bits of postmodernism. The formula is straightforward enough. Take objects with a long tradition of social propriety – porcelain figurines in Barford’s case – and juggle their various parts so that they become jarring or inappropriate. You could think about Jeff Koons’s Bubbles, or a Grayson Perry pot in the same way. But a longer look at the works in Barford’s Private Lives series suggests that this is not a good enough explanation.
For one thing, and in spite of their obvious satire, they are strangely likeable objects.
Pieces such as 'Oh God, Oh God – Margaret Thatcher on a cold day', do not exude waves of malice or critical theory. If anything, the word that suggests itself is “playful”. The sculpture’s Snow White figurine flirts coquettishly with Sleepy; if the dwarf sports an obvious erection, then so he should. The work is about play, which is what porcelain figurines have always been about.
All of which is to say that Private Lives both subverts the traditions of porcelain and honours them. Pieces of Meissen or Lladrò were (and are) designed for the telling of stories, whether those stories are of Pierrot courting Columbine or of gypsy ladies selling balloons. Barford’s figurines, too, tell stories, although their narrative is self-contained. The shire horse in 'Anything you can do, I can do better' lives up to its title. Barford has visibly changed it – the horse now has an astronaut’s helmet and the letters “USA” , or indeed “CCCP” , on its flank – but the result is an improvement rather than a diminution. Removed from the world of horse-brass kitsch, the subject of Barford’s Anything you can do has power restored to it, a new virility.
Another way of putting this would be to see the work as redemptive.
Ask Barford for the subject of his new series and he will, after a pause, reply “human frailty”. The pieces in Private Lives certainly embody that. They suffer from lust, greed, cruelty and overweaning ambition. But they are also accepting of their own weaknesses, the joins in their make-up. In the mode of Hogarth, they admit that the world is an imperfect place, without letting it get them down. Maybe they even celebrate the fact. And that capacity both to wag a finger at frailties and enjoy them puts Barford’s new work in a tradition that is as much British as it is postmodern.
Charles Darwent March 2008
Charles Darwent is the art critic of the Independent on Sunday