The Form of Anna Barriball’s Transient Memories

An exhibition at London’s Frith Street Gallery showcases delicate graphite, wax and pastel dust drawings that attempt to capture a moment in time for reflection or reliving

BY Salena Barry in Exhibition Reviews | 04 MAR 24

Anna Barriball’s latest works are experiments in the hopeful yet impossible task of capturing time. In the artist’s current exhibition at Frith Street Gallery, washes of colour – chartreuse, cyan and sage among them – flood her drawings of domestic spaces, seascapes and trees. Her works use a range of techniques involving graphite, wax and pastel dust to construct a layered, translucent effect. For Barriball, colour and mood foreground and partially obscure the facts of what she depicts. Simultaneously contained and transient, the artist’s work seeks to concretize memory in physical form.

Anna Barriball
Anna Barriball,​​ ​Afterimage (detail), 2021, pastel, wax, paper, graphite powder, series of seven drawings, 22 × 15 cm (unframed) each. Courtesy: the artist and Frith Street Gallery; photograph: Ben Westoby

True-to-scale drawings of windows feature prominently throughout the exhibition. The largest of them, Studio window (blue fade) (2023–24), hangs at the exhibition entrance. This work, which depicts a series of intersecting grilles, offers 92 frames through which light could pass to illuminate a scene beyond. Instead, each encases a uniform shade of blue. In other works, including Window (above door) and Window (blue fade) (both 2023), this blue gradually darkens toward the bottom of the drawings, evoking a time of day – perhaps early morning or late afternoon – where the whispers of darkness leak in. Barriball’s images are not merely representations of windows, in the artist’s studio or otherwise, but of specific moments in time in which they have existed. The works’ wax coatings have wrinkles and grooves that resemble the ridges of a large fingerprint, hinting at the uniqueness of these moments, while also attempting to encase them, to fix them in time, like objects suspended in resin. However, the prominence of colour, which floods the entire image, suggests that it is a corresponding emotion, rather than a period in time, which has truly been encapsulated.

Anna Barriball
Anna Barriball, ‘New Drawings’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Frith Street Gallery; photograph: Ben Westoby

Barriball’s use of wax doesn’t only encase; it also conceals. Afterimage (2021) consists of seven drawings of shadows in the artist’s childhood bedroom created by making a drawing in graphite powder on paper before adding a layer of paper with powdered pastel that has been dipped in molten wax. Hung in a horizontal line, the series begins with an image trapped under an opaque sheet of vermillion wax. From first to last, the visibility of the underlying image waxes and wanes, becoming most evident in the centre before retreating into pigment. This transition suggests a memory refigured, as though the facts of remembered time momentarily come into focus, perhaps to be renegotiated, before returning to the depths of the psyche with a new emotional charge. 

This morphing is also presented in the show’s sole video work, The sun (Rosa’s room) (2024), a soundless loop of shadows dancing on the wall of Barriball’s daughter’s bedroom. The soft, blurred silhouettes evade links to a particular object and appear in constant flux. This causes them, like the wall-mounted works, to evoke competing emotions of anxiety and hope rather than place. However, unlike Afterimage, the movement underscores memory’s inherent instability, even when snatched from time’s constant march.

Anna Barriball
Anna Barriball, Window (blue twilight), 2023, pastel, wax, paper, 1.6 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Frith Street Gallery; photograph: Ben Westoby

The works in this show represent an ultimately futile yet deeply human impulse: the desire to bend the fleeting nature of our existence to our will and whim. Attempting to hold time still so as to relive or reflect upon a moment is something we have succeeded at to varying degrees, none of them absolute. Nonetheless, the satisfaction of stealing away even a minor element brings us joy. Barriball’s work, in which colour and its emotionality are key, demonstrates that the one thing we can preserve with accuracy is how these moments have resonated within us. 

Anna Barriball’s ‘New Drawings’ is at Frith Street Gallery, London, until 14 March 

Main image: Anna Barriball, Window (blue twilight) (detail), 2023, pastel, wax, paper, 1.6 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Frith Street Gallery; photograph: Ben Westoby

Salena Barry is a writer and digital communications professional living in London, UK. She is a 2022 Jerwood Writer in Residence.