Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street
November 14 – December 22, 2018
Until she represented the United Kingdom at the Venice Biennale in 2017, Phyllida Barlow could scarcely be said to have been a star in the contemporary art world. This is not to say she was unknown. Far from it. She had long been something of a marginalized stalwart. In London, as a teacher at the Slade School of Art for over forty years, she fostered such brilliant talents as Anthony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, and Martin Creed, but, although a Royal Academician, remained almost always behind the scenes. All that has changed.
Now she has come to New York with a major exhibition of new work made since her triumph in Venice. She describes the new pieces as economical and stripped down. The layers of hessian dipped in cement are largely absent, though the sense of exquisitely improvised assemblages of discarded utilitarian things from some dystopian city streetscape remains.
Some works are on a scale that crowd the space and impinge on the viewer, such as untitled: hung4; 2018. This is a gathering of four large plywood boards, each with a circular hole cut in it, aligned with each other out of kilter, painted shades of red and orange, and suspended from the ceiling. Barlow said that she had tried a less threatening color scheme of blues, but that the work lacked the sense of danger she values. There certainly is an alarming aspect to this piece, and to other large works in the exhibition.
For instance, even more menacing than the hanging sculpture is untitled: pinkspree; 2018, a tilted stack of three toothed boards resembling giant hackles—spiked tools for combing flax—roughly smeared first with black and then pink paint. Barlow’s genial reference to it in conversation as “that big pink thing over there,” may have disarmed it somewhat, but only fleetingly.
There is an irreverent side to all the works on view, as though a graffiti artist bent on mayhem had aimed her spray paint at exquisite sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Lynn Chadwick. Barlow’s sculptures, for all their bad girl messiness, retain a vestigial poise of the kind found in the works of those British artists of an earlier generation. The hanging sculpture, untitled: hung4; 2018, evokes a Barbara Hepworth after an earthquake, while she follows Chadwick’s work in the sense of balance with which she imbues numbers of them. This can be seen no more clearly than in untitled: pointer; 2018, an assemblage of four seeming offcuts of plywood daubed with glued sand and sprayed with orange and yellow paint, that balances on the apexes of two triangles on a steel cube.
Barlow expresses a love of big city streets where builders improvise work-arounds in the course of messy and disruptive infrastructure projects. One such chute for pouring concrete, knocked together from rough planks, caught her eye on a building site, and inspired the ensemble untitled: shute 1,2,3 – wall,leaning,floor; 2018. Barlow is the master of robust abjection.
At times, it is not the worn and encrusted artifacts themselves that fascinate her so much as the shadows they cast in urban space. She captures such a shadow in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-like projection in untitled: tilt(lintel); 2018, the work that gives its (non-) name to the exhibition. The vertical though angled steel element is like the bare, stripped frame of a doorway in a Kurt Schwitters Merzbau, while rising from its base is a construction of grey painted plywood spreading horizontally across the floor. It represents—Barlow said—the shadow; though she genially allows it to be anything else that an engaged viewer might fancy. Asked about the fall of actual shadow from the sculpted shadow, and the part that shadows play in her works, Barlow admitted that lighting is a huge challenge, and that this issue is what she termed the Achilles heel of her practice. If that is indeed so, no one has yet fatally found the mark. Phyllida Barlow’s tilt is a triumph for an artist of great acumen and experience at the height of her powers.
Ivan Gaskell is professor and head of the Focus Project at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.