Interview with Ted Barker

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By Lisa Kehler

LK: Hurry up and start winning with vegas party slots at our casino. Limited supply! Thanks for choosing to talk to me about your upcoming show at the gallery. We've known each other now for almost 4 years. In that time we have had the opportunity to work together in a few different capacities, including dealer/artist. We're coming up on 2 years of representation, but this marks the first solo exhibition I've had the honour to work with you on. Detritus is clearly a continuation of your interest in your family history, most specifically your Opa and the legacy of objects he left behind. Shall we start with the title? Why Detritus?

 TB: I chose Detritus as a title because I feel it efficiently describes both the concept and content of the work in this show. Detritus refers commonly to waste and debris, things that are discarded or broken off something larger. I've also heard a more specific definition; detritus being the resulting debris when two large rocks or landforms interact. For example glacial ice pressing against bedrock, chipping off bits of stone.

Visually, the physical objects I use in my work fall under the first more broad definition. I use material that is essentially waste. Everything I include in a piece is considered and relevant to concept, but I liked how the title also neatly refers to the obvious content.

Conceptually, I'm very interested in contrasting ideas, eras or worlds and the point of interaction between them. Every interaction seems to produce some physical debris or artifact. All of the work in the show deals with this idea; finding and documenting the material that exists in that specific, intermediate space. The visual of two huge rock faces interacting and grinding together producing little artifacts is very accurate to what I'm thinking about in this work. A lot of the work originated with a consideration of my Opa's life and the space existing between his affluent background and a fairly fabricated rustic life living in a traditional log cabin in Ontario. From that, I began to think about my own life and what sort of debris or object exists in similar situations. Like my Opa, I feel that I live in, or at least relate to two worlds; one comfortable and civilized and one that is the wild nature I grew up exploring. An elaboration of this concept led to exploring the artifacts that were a result of big life changes that sort of break life into stages, specifically to me, the death of my Opa.

In all of these situations, there are two massive, contrasting sides. In the example of my Opa's death, the before and the after. Relating to his life and mine, the civilized life versus a connection with nature. What interests me the most is the precise point of contact between the two. There always seems to be some resulting physical thing; a cast off, rubbish or something that exists specifically in that space. It's these objects, the detritus that I'm using in my work.

LK: I’m fascinated by the idea of this dichotomous life you live, as did your Opa. The correspondence to the exhibition, Detritus, seems a clear nod to this: the raw, rough sculpture, paired with the precision of your conte drawings and watercolours.  Can you talk about the process for creating the sculptures of hands?  

TB: I wanted everything to articulate the theme of contrast I'm talking about, the individual work as well as the whole visual of the show. The plaster hands were kept rough to emphasize this. All of the pieces are about physically documenting that precise median, the point of contact. With the hands, I was thinking about the physical point of contact between body and nature. They're unique to the show as I wanted to see how I could document that space, if the material of both sides is taken away from the final piece. All of the other work is about highlighting that physical material. 

The hands were made by digging up natural clay on the land that my Opa bought in Ontario. It's a beautiful grey clay I used to play with as a child, and it has been used for thousands of years by indigenous people for pottery. The clay I dug was packed into a large bucket and I forced my hands down into the wet clay. There is a lot of resistance in the clay, it pushes back hard and at some point your hands can't physically be inserted any deeper. I then removed my hands and filled the void left with wet plaster. When the plaster was set, I carefully excavate the piece by digging out the clay from around it. 

What's left is a very strained looking hand cast. The surface of the plaster sculpture is the precise point where the two sides met and resisted one another. The plaster is simply the method of documentation. What's most fascinating to me about these pieces are the imperfections. There are little artifacts from both sides. You can see clay left on the plaster and where there were gaps in the packed clay. You can also see where some fingers dragged or distorted and left a larger void to fill. I think it's a good representation of how both sides push and move and leave evidence of themselves. 

LK: Another object unique to this exhibition is the coat sewn from blue tarp material. Those familiar with your previous work will recognize it immediately – it’s become a staple in your visual lexicon. What prompted you to create this new iteration of your Opa’s coat?

TB: The coat that this piece is modeled after is a buckskin coat my Opa wore out at the cabin. I’ve used the original coat quite thoroughly in the past and it was the object that really initiated this new work. Like all of the objects and material I use, the coat fit in that zone between my Opa’s affluent life and his existence living in the wilderness. It sort of bound the two sides together through physical contact. It was something authentic from the land he fit into, creating as close a connection as one can with objects. It’s a similar idea to the cast hands; I’m looking to see where the point of contact is, or perhaps what the barrier in between is.

I started looking at materials that exist to separate those two worlds, or the barriers that live and function only in that specific space. In the conte drawings, you see polyethylene tarps, foam insulation and plywood, all manufactured material designed to efficiently create that separation between us and the wild. I’ve been drawn most to tarps as they’re so precise and simple in representing that barrier. Their basic function is to separate and protect our physical comforts. They are such a definite example of that point of contact I’ve become obsessed with.

The buckskin coat made from tarp is a pretty simple idea, just a swap of material. The deer skin of the original coat has the same function, but originates on the opposite side that the tarp is from. The tarp coat is a surreal mash-up of the two sides. The construction of the blue coat is completely faithful to the original. It’s also meant to reiterate that my Opa’s life in the woods was, while convincing, synthetic and somewhat contrived.

 LK: Let’s talk about the watercolours you’ve created for the exhibition. Each work is the documentation of another form of sculpture designed to represent various body parts. The seven individual works combine to make a self-portrait. The way they are mounted for this exhibition is also unique in that they seem to become objects once again.

 TB: The watercolours are dealing more with what exists in between era’s in my life. The conte drawings and sculptures are about physical separations, like a tarp in between the elements and your conveniences (two worlds).  The sculptures in the watercolours are made from objects that ended up in my possession after my Opa passed away. These objects appeared in that brief period between my life with Opa in it, and what came after. When he died his home was disassembled and his vast collection of stuff was dispersed among relatives. For me that event was the division: the point where the two eras touched and things changed. I’m currently living in the same house, so all of the neglected or overlooked things fell to me. The small sculptures depicted in the watercolours were built by assembling what I found in the house.

 Again, this work is about finding a way to document the objects that define the intermediate. With the conte drawings, I chose to wrap myself in the material because that work is about space that currently exists. The margins between those spaces are ones I can pinpoint with physical things and interact with. Because the watercolours are about a transition in time, I can’t make that same connection with my body. So, I decided to make my body out of the objects. It’s a superficial way of making a more physical connection to that time. It’s synthetic. I chose to hang the pieces unframed because I wanted to emphasize the physical. I want the pieces to exist, rather than simply being images of something that exists.