Taking Up Space
Taking Up Space
Phyllida Barlow opens the door of her Victorian terrace, a stone’s throw from Arsenal Football Club’s stadium. "Come in," she says, and I follow her to the kitchen. "Tea?" Sure. I sit on a stool as we share gallery gossip. In a bowl melted chocolate awaits the baking tray. Children’s drawings are pinned everywhere, and a Pink Panther soft toy peeps up from the pocket of a blazer hanging on the wall. Barlow is warm, welcoming, relaxed. Paint and glue stain her slacks; her pale blue eyes sparkle behind her thin-framed glasses. The former art professor, now 67, has reason to be happy. In the space of a few years, she has become a household name, her sculptures and installations of planks, concrete, and plaster shown all over Europe and beyond — and in July 2009 the high-end gallery Hauser & Wirth took her on.
"Something has happened that I never thought would happen," she tells me. Sipping her tea, she smiles, still savoring what she describes as her career’s "volte-face." For more than 40 years, Barlow taught in some of London’s most influential art schools while quietly maintaining an individual practice. "Like most of my colleagues, I would work until the early hours with the administrative stuff," she recalls, "and all my spare time would be spent in the studio. That’s a huge commitment" — a commitment made all the more challenging by the fact that Barlow was also raising her five children. "When teaching stopped, in 2008, all I thought was, ‘Gosh, I’m going to spend all this time in the studio.'"
Since then she has indeed spent a great deal of time working in the studio, and not exactly at a retiree’s leisurely pace. Meanwhile the interest in her makeshift sculptures has grown exponentially. If Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, "For the Love of God," 2007, epitomized the boom years, Barlow’s pieces, with their emphasis on cheap and reused materials, encapsulate the credit-crunch era. Her work’s sense of urgency and its tottering monumentality also chime with the production of younger artists currently in the British limelight, such as Karla Black, Graham Hudson, and Sara Barker.
Yet, debunking an idea that has been regularly bandied about in the press, Barlow claims that she hasn’t been an influence on the generations that came after her. "It’s absurd to repeat that to justify my years of teaching," she says. The artist stands with her younger colleagues as a peer. This was obvious last year in the two-person exhibition she did with Nairy Baghramian (20 years her junior) at the Serpentine Gallery. Barlow’s bold and messy sculptural gestures contrasted with Baghramian’s clear-cut pieces, but they evinced similar concerns with the occupation and disruption of space. "Things aren’t just visual," Barlow tells me. "They are sensations of physicality."
Most sculpture does qualify as physical, but in the artist’s mouth the term sounds confrontational. In "Swamp," first presented at London’s V22 in 2010, a large enclosure crams the entire space. "It was made of scrap wood," Barlow explains. "I wanted to make a form that would take up as much of that space as possible." Violence is an intrinsic part of her practice. She describes her sculptures as "obstacles, nuisances" characterized by "aggression, overwhelmingness, or absurdity." "Swamp’s" planks are held together with scrim, a thin mesh that acts as a binder when soaked in cement. It remains visible, testifying to the expediency of the piece’s creation. Bright-pink triangular plinths radiate from the wall, their pointed tips stuck under it, further unsettling the overall structure. It looks as if one blow would be enough to smash it down.
Barlow’s works may be colossal, but they always appear on the verge of collapse, as if they were made to last only a few days. For the artist this precariousness reflects a "rebellion against sculpture with a capital S" going back to her student days. After three years at London’s Chelsea College of Art in the early 1960s, Barlow enrolled at Slade School of Fine Art. "There was this understanding that you were there to learn the craft of carving and casting," she recalls. "It was deadly, and I was a horrible and unpleasant student as a result. Of course, I’m hugely grateful for these skills now. They give an artist tremendous independence."
At the time her heroes were Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, and Gordon Matta-Clark. She tells me about Bourgeois’s "The Blind Leading the Blind," 1947-49, a tablelike structure with seven pairs of spiky legs. "It’s all completely revealed," she marvels. "There’s no trick." Barlow virulently opposes sculpture’s tradition of deceit, the idea that a material should be made to look like something else. "I want the fact that it’s the cheapest two-by-one timber, or the cheapest hardboard you can get, to be blatant and disclosed," she says.
Barlow’s commitment to the modernist idea of "truth to the materials" was particularly relevant to the location of her recent 2011 show "Cast": the Kunstverein Nürnberg, a former Bauhaus dairy that was requisitioned by Hitler to feed his troops during the Nuremberg Rallies. Taking a handrail’s shadow as a starting point, the artist created a towering structure punctuated by black barrier elements. Like most of Barlow’s pieces, this fragile scaffolding looks very much in process. As Barlow would put it, it "could go on." Reminiscent of the Lyonel Feininger woodcut of a cathedral famously used to illustrate the 1919 Bauhaus manifesto, "Untitled: Structure" pays homage to early modernism’s momentum while materializing the vulnerability of the movement’s radical concepts. In one of the lateral galleries, two soft sacks rested side by side on wooden cradles. The work, "Untitled: Bolsters," "looks like something sleeping, quite at peace with itself," she says — a moment of respite in history’s frantic race. Another room was crammed with the open concrete tubes of "Untitled: Containers," which resembles a desolate landscape, a burnt-down forest, or a cemetery. "Unfortunately, the aesthetic is a little bit Second World War," says Barlow, who would perhaps have preferred the link between the building’s past and her intervention to remain more allusive.
The Nürnberg exhibition allowed Barlow’s pieces to stretch throughout the gallery space. With her upcoming show, the artist’s latent ambition now has the means to be fully realized, and after decades of constraints, she is clearly enjoying every moment of her freedom. "The narrative of the space in Piccadilly is not too dissimilar from the Kunstverein Nürnberg," she muses, picturing how her work will inhabit the space at Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly this September. "You have spaces with a cavelike dormancy ideal for something somber and sleeping and a balcony overlooking a viewing space. The top floor will be for something surprising, something unsuspected like you might find on top of a building. I want to play with that."
"Taking Up Space" originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' Summer 2011 Table of Contents.