Mead Gallery: October 4 – December 6, 2008
There is no doubt that Phyllida Barlow is a sculptor. That is one who makes objects in the round, and is concerned with the shaping of space and the tactility of materials. At this moment, they seem in short supply; actually that’s not quite true, it’s just that they are less visible. This is certainly true in the context of the London scene, where sculpture seems to be mostly of the conceptual and/or figurative variety, and artists of Barlow’s ilk seem to belong to another generation, popping up mostly in alternative venues.
Her latest one-person exhibition, Stint, is at the Mead Gallery, a university art space, which offers a gallery large enough for the range of Barlow’s imagination. Of late, most of Barlow’s exhibitions have been in other types of public arenas. Here she has filled the gallery with several large sculptures, but also one that divides the space into two, acting as a dam or border and thus reorienting our flow around the room.
Generally crafted out of pieces or sheets of wood with other elements attached, organic in form and approach, and ramshackle in appearance, they tend to be finished with thick, brightly coloured lashings of shiny house paint. Barlow’s sculpture offers us a tactility that is closer to painting rather than to that of sculpture. The words I find myself using to describe her work are: “look like” or “resemble”; that is, they have qualities that one finds in things in the real world. For example, a group of fifteen pyramidal wall reliefs painted like Rothkos (rectangle within rectangle) but repetitive like Judds, scattered willy-nilly along a wall, look like the “House for sale” hoardings that one finds in this country. She has at times taken inspiration from the exhibition space—not quite “site-specific” nor “site-specified” (as in Robert Irwin)—but rather she has allowed the space to determine some of the qualities of her sculptures.
An inkling of her thinking can be discerned from the titles of older works: “Stack,” “Fence,” “One & Two,” “Tied Tarpaulin,” “Object for a Piano.” They are pragmatic and functional, or at least descriptive of their attempt at functionality; that is, if you can consider a sprawling, lattice-like, elongated pyramidal structure dividing a room pragmatic. A huge box structure collapsed under the weight of the concrete covering it would suggest ideas about materiality, form and gravity, while a sprawling, black-painted “mess” of large cardboard tubes and wooden pallets squashing balls of feathery fabric pushes the limits of the idea of sculpture-in-the-round. In another, a tower of foam blocks glued together by concrete is propped up by a triangular wood pallet. On top is a yellow “bag” stuffed full of brown paper and black rubber. It’s absurd in a funny way, and in fact she has referred to them as “absurd objects”.
In America, Jessica Stockholder and Martin Puryear are good points of comparison. I have described Barlow as the poor man’s Puryear. It’s not to denigrate either artist, but to underscore the differences and similarities in their approaches. Both use an organic language and have a feel for the nature of their materials, but rather than the refined craftsmanship of Puryear, Barlow’s possess a rough, workmanlike quality in handling and construction. All is left evident to the viewer, but the hasty, “make-do” handling (e.g. the use of brown tape and colourful electrical tape) lends the work a casual charm. In nature they, at first glance, appear closer to Stockholder, but the latter has approached sculpture through painting, while Barlow seems to conjure the spirit of painting through her objects. Still, all three artists’ works share a certain intensity and love of physical matter.
Barlow’s visual language is one that repeats, and like Jazz it is improvised upon each occasion to suit the situation. Hence there are the usual suspects of conical shapes, sprawling mounds, leaning objects, dangling banners, and lattice structures. The difference is that three of the sculptures have little colour. Instead they take their tone from their material: brown or beige for the wood, and the grey of concrete. But this austerity is sabotaged by the whimsical nature of their structure. These things offer a form of loud resistance to the slick conceptualism that seems to be ubiquitous today. Readymades or assisted readymades these are not. Irrespective of their seemingly worn nature, they are full of wit and warm charm. She seems to say, “forget bronze and marble, this too can be high art.” And then cracks a smile.
Also a highly respected educator, Barlow is—to steal a phrase from Barry Schwabsky on Thomas Nozkowski—“quietly influential,” both in the classroom (Mike Nelson and Rachel Whiteread number among her students) and at the galleries. In 2007 she was awarded a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award. A prize not as sexy as the Turner, but generally awarded to those who have etched out far more public careers. Until now Barlow has been a quieter presence with more of a cult following, but maybe its just not so quiet any longer.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.