John Barbour

John Barbour (1954-2011), a complex, intelligent and much loved South Australian artist and academic, was in the prime of his life and at the height of his career when he died on Sunday 17 April 2011.

John Barbour (1954-2011)

John Barbour, a complex, intelligent and much loved South Australian artist and academic, was in the prime of his life and at the height of his career when he died on Sunday 17 April 2011.

Although diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, John maintained an optimistic outlook and a steady focus on his art practice during twelve months of declining health, embraced by family and friends. Only weeks before he passed away, John celebrated the opening of his last exhibition Infinite Thanks and the launch of his book Hard/Soft at the Yuill/Crowley Gallery in Sydney. Long awaited, the monograph edited by Ewan McDonald offers insights into an extraordinary oeuvre that spanned thirty years and will have an enduring impact on Australian art.

John commenced art school in Melbourne when he was 26 years old after studying literature and completing an Arts degree. At art school his focus shifted from writers such as Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens to Joyce and Beckett and the interdisciplinary and transgressive work of the Surrealists. He developed his art practice with a keen awareness of the historical and theoretical context he was working within. John engaged critically with minimalism, conceptual art and figurative expressionism; he acknowledged the heterogeneity of modernity, and its continuum with post-modernity. During the eighties he was influenced by the current debates on post-structural theory and critical texts by writers associated with October and Art+Text. Immersed in a milieu which was involved in experimental, interdisciplinary practices and criticism, along with his peers, John exhibited in the progressive Art Project Gallery in Melbourne and began a life long association with the Yuill/Crowley Gallery.

While engaging with the materiality of stuff, the presence of the object in a physical context, and interested in the idea that art could be 'obdurate, ambivalent, ambiguous, resistant to interpretation'1 there was a sense of human fallibility in his artwork, especially in his later years. A crumpled sheet of white voile or stained organza frayed at the edges, a torn heart made from lead, words tentatively embroidered and partially unpicked, small figurative tableaux and unravelling tangles of silk thread seemed to resonate with intense and ambivalent emotions.

In 1990 John moved to Adelaide and joined the staff of the South Australian School of Art. During his tenure he held many positions, most recently, that of Associate Head of Art, Architecture and Design, UniSA. Perhaps he will be best remembered for the post-graduate critiques that he convened every Friday in which rigorous discussions on art and ideas were generated and a deep commitment to studio-based practice was fostered.

Throughout his life John participated in numerous solo exhibitions including Tribute (A bibliography for bees), CACSA (2006); Flower Day, Yuill/Crowley (2008), and work for now, aeaf (2010). His work was also shown in many prestigious group exhibitions and international biennales such as Metropolitano iconographicas XXV, Bienal de Sao Paulo (2002) and Before and After Science, Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art, AGSA (2010). His substantial contribution as an artist, researcher and academic was recognised nationally and he was awarded the ACUADS Distinguished Researcher Award in 2004; a PhD from RMIT University in 2007; and a UniSA Mid-Career Researcher Award in 2008.

John Barbour made a powerful impact on those who knew him and left behind him an impressive legacy. He will be dearly missed.

Dr Mary Knights Director, SASA Gallery, Art, Architecture and Design, University of South Australia

1 Anne Thompson and John Barbour, ‘Interview’, Ewen McDonald (ed.) John Barbour: Hard/Soft, Adelaide and Sydney: aeaf and Yuill/Crowley, 2011, unpaginated.

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