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John Barbour

Inherent Vice  2005-2006

ink, acrylic and silk thread, cotton on cotton voile

265 × 245cm [irreg.]

Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2006


About the Artwork

Inherent Vice is a delicate hand-stitched and painted wall banner made from loosely sewn panels of voile, on which the words ‘inherent vice’ have been placed in a circular mandala over Rorschach-style ink blots. Pinned to the wall, this idiosyncratic banner sits at the intersection of painting and a tactile, three-dimensional piece. It is a deliberately fragile work, its title referring to the art conservation term ‘inherent vice’ – that is, the response of materials to the effects of light, handling and atmospheric conditions. Here is how the artist, John Barbour, expressed his understanding of the term:

A sculpture made of steel, bronze or stone presumably has a low index of inherent vice. An oil painting might have a medium index. Artworks made of fabric or paper, in being particularly fragile, have a high index. A human being, as a work of art, presumably also has a high index of inherent vice.[1]

For Barbour, human beings, like his wall banner, are in a constant state of physical decay, heading towards an eventual disintegration that signals the end of a ‘lifetime’ – however long that may be. Barbour has woven his reflections on the transience of life and mortality into Inherent Vice through his use of non-lightfast inks, delicate fabric and loose and unstable needlework. These materials increase the work’s inherent vice index and reflect his longstanding interest in what he calls ‘unmaking’ – an acknowledgement of human frailty and a deliberate resistance to the well made.

Barbour pursued a gently ironic artistic practice, exploring the paradox between form and formlessness in a manner which has been referred to as a kind of ‘studied incompetence’.[2] His materials of choice are modest: fabric, thread, cardboard, found objects and ink. With these he created banners like Inherent Vice and various kinds of wall and floor installations over his 30-year career.

[1] John Barbour, written on the occasion of the purchase of Inherent Vice by the MCA Sydney, December 2006.
[2] Russell Smith, John Barbour: Tribute (A Bibliography for Bees), Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, 2006, n.p.

My work, inherent vice, is a banner which publicly declares itself to be ‘infected’ from within. It is fragile – the voile fabric is delicate, the inks used are not lightfast, and the needlework is loose and unstable. These aspects of its construction reflect a similarly longstanding interest on my part in ‘unmaking’ as an aspect of mortality.

John Barbour in conversation with Russell Smith, John Barbour: Tribute (A Bibliography for Bees), Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, 2006, n.p.

VIDEO: John Barbour discusses 'Inherent Vice' (2006)

Artist John Barbour discusses his work Inherent Vice (2006) featured in the exhibition New Acquisitions 2007, for the MCA Artist's Voice series. See more about John Barbour and his work in the MCA Online Collection https://www.mca.com.au/collection/work/2006.43/ This video was produced with support from the Keir Foundation in 2007.

John Barbour

– About the artist

Born 1954, The Hague, Netherlands. Lived and worked Adelaide. Died 2011.

John Barbour’s experimental and interdisciplinary practice comprises works on paper and cloth, sometimes incorporating deliberate stains, tears and child-like hand-embroidered text. Influenced by conceptual art and minimalism, Barbour’s work engages with ideas of human frailty and fallibility through the use of lowly and humble materials like cardboard, torn paper, Styrofoam and stained cloth. His works declare themselves not as ‘well-made’ in the tradition of fine crafts and art, or as ‘ready-mades’ in the sculptural tradition of anti-art, but as ‘un-made’: brought into existence through chance, accident and carelessness rather than accomplished as a demonstration of skill. In electing to pursue the transient, the accidental, the torn and unraveled, Barbour brings to our attention the fallibility and precariousness of existence in works of thought-provoking ambiguity and ambivalence. 

Barbour was a senior academic in the Architecture and Design School at the University of South Australia, and his artistic practice spanned more than three decades. His last solo exhibition was Infinite Thanks at Yuill|Crowley, Sydney in 2011. Other exhibitions include Work for Now, Australian Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide (2010) and Tribute (A Bibliography for Bees), Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (CACSA), Adelaide (2006). His work was also shown in Interesting Times: Focus on Contemporary Australian Art, MCA, Sydney (2005) and the Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil (2002). The Australian Experimental Art Foundation published a monograph on his work, Hard/Soft, in 2011.

Barbour’s work is held in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane; as well as private and university collections in Australia.

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