Sophie Barber with her painting 'Phil'
Sophie Barber with her painting ‘Phil’

A graduate of the University of Brighton’s BA (Hons) Fine Art Practice at Sussex Coast College, Hastings, has won the prestigious and much coveted Platform Graduate Award. Sophie Barber, 21, whose paintings earlier this year were exhibited at the De La Warr Pavilion, was announced as the award’s winner last week. The prize includes a bursary of £2,500 and mentoring from artist Jonathan Parsons. The sparse and haunting lyricism of her unstretched, patchy, graffiti-inspired canvases, rich with emotional intelligence, makes Barber a more-than-deserving winner.

The Platform Graduate Award was established in 2012 by the Contemporary Visual Arts Network for the most promising newly-graduated artist in the South East. Forty-one artists from sixteen competing universities were chosen to exhibit in one of five partner galleries: Aspex Gallery in Portsmouth, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, Modern Art Oxford and Turner Contemporary in Margate. Representatives from the five galleries plus the 2017 Turner Prize nominee Rosalind Nashashibi comprised the judging panel, who commended Barber for the ‘coherence [of her] painting practice and her already confident and distinctive artistic voice’.

Part of the magic of Barber’s work comes from a certain hesitance to reveal. Each canvas seems to have a narrative behind it, but we as viewers are only partially let in. Barber’s De La Warr exhibit consisted of two floor-to-ceiling unstretched squarish canvases, titled Phil and Red Table Phil, both of which have the word ‘Phil’ inscribed boldly in naïve hand at the bottom right corner. As there are no human figures in these canvases, who Phil is meant to be is left to our imagination – if Phil is meant to be anyone at all. The name is like those we see graffitied in the street; most of us are unable to identify the person, but automatically we imagine it to be a person and a person with a story connected to whoever it was that wrote it.

Barber’s style further enhances the sense of there being a narrative beyond what we can see: the threadbare, unfinished edges and the stitching and patching up of areas of the canvas, the rough application of paint, the elusive ‘table’ whose warped delineation and opaqueness suggest that it too is hiding something. It goes beyond painting per se, as each canvas is made to look as though it were stripped from a vandalised wall or billboard. Barber names Philip Guston, Roy Oxlade, Rose Wylie and Julian Schnabel among her influences. The looseness and patchiness of her technique invite comparison also with the figurative work of Tracey Emin. Yet in strong contrast to the latter’s characteristic exhibitionism, Barber’s work seems more about holding back and covering up.