Leeds-based artist Simeon Barclay’s astute body of work explores social expectation and the construction of identity by way of appropriated pop-cultural imagery and slick, semi-industrial materials.

Born in 1975, Barclay’s art is informed by his upbringing in a working-class black family in Huddersfield and a 16-year career spent working in manufacturing.

Barclay studied at Leeds Metropolitan University, graduating with a fine art BA in 2010. He gained an MFA from Goldsmiths, University of London in 2014.

His current solo show ‘Bus2Move’ at The Tetley, Leeds, is developed from research into dance. It continues until 3 February 2019, before travelling to Workplace, Gateshead from 15 March.

‘Life Room’, a solo show of existing and new works, opens at Holden Gallery, Manchester on 8 February. As part of the exhibition, Barclay will produce a work in response to the North West Film Archive and the Slide Library at the Visual Resource Centre, both part of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Library Services Special Collections.

‘Bus2Move’ is an ambitious solo show of almost entirely new work. Can you describe your overall approach or intent for this exhibition?
I wanted first to have an engagement with the space that meant that you experienced it in a totally different way. I’d exhibited at the Tetley in 2015, so that gave me a familiarity; as did the case that I viewed exhibitions there. I was a regular. What tends to happen with the large, double-height atrium space is people go for impact, to fill it with a stand-out piece. I started to think, how low could I bring things? To speak more of the ground. If we talk about art history, we talk about people like Robert Morris, Richard Serra and Carl Andre; in their early works it’s not phallic. The sculpture is not rising upwards, it’s not stout, it’s not large.

You’re referring here to your work ‘Fail to Learn,’ where three translucent Perspex cubes, about a metre square, are on the floor echoing forms that appear in a performance by Phoenix Dance, shown on an adjacent monitor.
Yes, they’re about 70cm high. The theme of the box has, for me, been quite a recurrent theme probably from when I was at art college, evoking ideas of being boxed in, compartmentalising and what you might hide or reveal in a box. I was thinking about the elements within the boxes as well, and how they might lay low to the floor. Each contains an image of the pop artist formally known as Terence Trent D’Arby. He was sort of a braggart and there was an overblown sense of who he was. What I tend to focus on though is the hurt, the psychological breakdown of when this mythological sense of self falls and reality hits.

When you’re choosing figures like D’Arby as motifs for your work, how do you pick them?
I like anti-heroes, I’m interested in people who have an uneasy relationship with constructs of identity that are around them. They usually come out of very pivotal points within my pre-adult life. There’s a snooker player, Alex Higgins, who was a mercurial player of great talent. He basically tore up the rule book in the way he acted and the shots he pulled off. I think the public liked him because they seemed to think that he was playing for them. But, as well as all this bravado and flourish, he was a serial alcoholic. His inner life was in turmoil. Somebody like Diana Princess of Wales was another character who embodied that. She was a tragic figure who was in a way in cahoots with the press. She needed them but was undermined by them as well.

For ‘Bus2Move’, why did you choose dance, in particular, as a way to explore the performance of identity?
As a young child there were two points when I realised there is a certain power and a certain con to this. My father was a tailor, so I was able to see how people reacted to you being dressed in different wares; performing the costume or living in the costume. The other sense was being invited to dance at parties my parents put on for friends and family. Being given the floor, the more you perform, the more encouragement you got. There’s a certain innocence to that, there’s an aspect of loosing your inhibitions. Clubs are quite dark, they’re quite mysterious; you could loose yourself in those spaces. You could re-invent yourself. You could be as sexy as Marilyn, you could be the leading man. You could work through a performance that allowed you to leave your troubles or your strife outside.

At the same time, I wanted to think about the politics of space and how the same hierarchies and constructions that exist outside in the world are brought into the dance club. If we talk about the VIP lounge, that’s a closed space that you could only get into because you have certain status or you were deemed fit to be in there. As individuals you went to great effort to attire yourself so that you would access the club, then within the space there were these different hierarchical points that you were or weren’t able to access.

This tension is very evident in your work ‘Look No Hands’. Sound and neon draw the viewer into the installation but barriers in the gallery doorways keep us physically out. As I understand it, you’re creating this physical environment as a metaphor for social access or lack of social access.
Yes, that’s right. And maybe how we see ourselves, who we are, who we can become. What’s possible but what isn’t possible.

Your materials include neon, sound and moving image but also acrylic, aluminium and powder-coated steel. How does the knowledge or set of fabrication skills gained in your time in industry inform your work?
At certain points within my educational life there’s been an inadequacy complex, that maybe I didn’t do it the more conventional way. But in hindsight, all these experiences I had outside of formal schooling have acted as a sort of foundation. Understanding materiality, understanding how things are constructed, understanding scale in relation to architecture and most importantly the idea of building something that’s bigger than yourself. As well as this, understanding class – black and white working cultures; masculinity construction; the formulation of the group in relation to the individual.

When I first arrived at art school I tried to deny everything that went before and became quite bookish, but if you’re going to live with the work that you do, it’s  very important that it has a sense of coming from a real place.

I’ve heard you talk before about identifying across different class, race or gender boundaries in the images you appropriate. Could you talk a bit about that?
I grew up in a time when you had four TV channels. If I was just looking for black role models there wouldn’t have been many. So what do you do, do you just stifle yourself and wait? Or can you understand the human-ness in a person’s act, a person’s beauty or execution of a certain thing and embody that? You might talk about footballers, black and white. You might talk about Higgins, you might talk about Tommy Cooper. If you’re working class you can relate to that in a way you might not relate to comedy such as The Young Ones, or people who come out of Cambridge. Its references are quite different.

Sometimes people talk about the images I use in terms of nostalgia, and I really have a problem with this and I wondered why that was. There’s a hierarchy of things you can talk about that are seen as proper and seen as worthy. Everything else gets thrown into that nostalgia bracket. These references, especially the specificity of these references, are more than nostalgia.

Now you have entered the art world and have a level of success, do you feel that there is a place for you there?
I think there still needs to be more voices really. A lot more differing voices. I often think, this was a close shave. I knew I had something within my peer set in regards to thinking about things like interior design, fashion and music. I knew I had an opinion and a certain sense of the aesthetic but as far as what I might do with that and where a voice would come from to articulate that, I didn’t really have a grasp on that. Had I not had the bravery or bull-headedness or encouragement to attempt to find a space for myself in the world then I might not have been here.

‘Bus2Move’ continues at The Tetley, Leeds until 3 February 2019, then travels to Workplace, Gateshead, 15 March – 27 April 2019.

‘Life Room’ is at Holden Gallery, Manchester, 8 February – 29 March 2019.

1. Simeon Barclay, Handicap, 2016. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. © the artist
2. Simeon Barclay, 2018, film still. Courtesy: The Tetley
3. Simeon Barclay, Fail To Learn, 2018, installation view, The Tetley, Leeds. Photo: Jules Lister; Courtesty: the artist and The Tetley
4. Simeon Barclay, Look No Hands (detail), 2018. Photo: Jules Lister; Courtesy: the artist and The Tetley
5. Simeon Barclay, En/Counter in 5 Movements, 2018. Photo: Jules Lister: Courtesy: the artist and The Tetley
6. Simeon Barclay, Royal Flush, 2017. Courtesy: the artist ​

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