Phyllida Barlow: cul-de-sac
Royal Academy of Arts, London
On until 23rd June 2019 (£14 admission)
Phyllida Barlow is a British artist who represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and currently focus on abstract, mostly large scale sculptures where robust construction materials like concrete and steel are used in harmony with domestic materials like fabric - anything but bronze, please. She is not only my neighbour, she is also the great-great-grandaughter of - wait for it - Charles Darwin. What???!!! And all of this I only learned after I went to the RA to see her exhibition.
I arrived at the RA at 10am and went straight into Phyllida Barlow’s exhibition. I had the most wonderful fifty minutes, mostly alone (save for the security guards on their smart phones), moving around, in between and under Barlow’s sculptures.
"She is not only my neighbour, she is also the great-great-grandaughter of - wait for it - Charles Darwin."
The exhibition actually starts outside of The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries which means that two of her works can be enjoyed for free. Yay! The first work is half way through the wide staircase that leads to the galleries. Untitled: stack, 2019 is what looks like gigantic surrealist match sticks. They are rather colourful with wood painted a shade of pink as the sticks and cement (I think) at the top. The cement is intertwined with rainbow colours like yellow, blue, orange and pink (is pink in the rainbow? *thoughtful emoji*). The "match sticks" are all bunched up together but there is nothing holding them giving that sense that they may come undone at any moment. The second set of stairs leads to the second sculpture to the right - untitled:smallholder, 2019. Here is a structure of what I will describe as hula hoops cut in half, bandaged individually with fabric of various bright colours (pink is one of Phyllida’s favourite colours) then partially covered in cement and stacked one on top of the other. There are about thirty of them sustained by a tripod.
As I walked into the galleries I was greeted by a very generous space with extraordinarily high ceiling and flooded with natural light. There are thirteen, mostly large, sculptures displayed, almost evenly, between the three rooms (if you could only divide thirteen by three and get a whole number…). The works are entirely new and were made by the artist with the space in mind. The place that each work occupies as well as the way the visitor will come across it are meticulously considered by Barlow when creating the installations. She makes an interesting analogy of her work to a play where there are three protagonists: the work itself, the space and the audience. Barlow views the encounter of the visitor with the works as an experience that might linger in the viewer’s memory just like when you go to the theatre.
The first room is the most colourful of the three. To the left there is an installation of what, from a distance, looks like the t-shirts of a giant displayed on manequins without a head. However they are not a giant's t-shirts, they are large unstretched canvas painted in bright colours using a broom. The canvas are then draped over wooden supports with cylindrical concrete bases. Some of the works go as high as five and half meters requiring a concrete base as heavy as 75kg to keep it from tipping over. It is quite beautiful (even if the artist says that she makes ugly sculptures). It reminded me of Working up a Sweat, 2014 – an installation by Jonathas de Andrade currently on show at MCA Chicago. To the right of these racks of canvas (that's what they are called - untitled: canvasracks, 2018-2019) there is a massive concrete block held up close to the ceiling and supported by a couple of tall flimsy stilts secured in a concrete structure shaped as an irregular cube. Several of these cubes of various sizes are lined up on the floor forming the shadow of the lintel. You can walk under the concrete block if you have the courage. The work is called untitled: lintelshadow, 2018-2019 and when I first saw it I couldn’t help but speculate that the public liability insurance for that must have been huge. But after a more thorough inspection of the work - that might or might not have involved a brief tactile examination - I realised that the slab at the top is probably not concrete. At least the part that is on the floor isn't. I think it might be covered in a thin layer of cement but the inside of it is something light like foam (the wall text tells me that polyurethane foam is on the list of ingredients of the sculpture). The instability of the work gives it an interesting and daring feel. The artist uses the height and precariousness of the sculpture as a kind of metaphor for the way our society lives today.
"They are large unstretched canvas painted using a broom."
One of the highlights of the space is how one room looks, connects and talks to the other. The second room has lower ceilings and less light but nonetheless contained one of my favourite works: a small steel structure hanging high on the wall - untitled: cutter, 2018-2019 - that looked like an oversized yarn ball with loose steel thread. Attached to the steel “thread” there was some plaster painted yellow and pink. I loved looking at this work from underneath. Even though I knew it was steel, the plaster and the colours gave it a soft and edible quality to it like cotton candy. It reminded me a bit of the works of Franz West but not as dense.
The third and final room is a literal dead end, as the title of the exhibition suggests, I had to walk back to the beginning of the exhibition to exit it, which I quite enjoyed doing. Four large installations dominate this room. The one that caught my attention - untitled: postshadow, 2019 - was a white almost floor-to-ceiling structure in the format of a wonky cross anchored in a cylindrical concrete base. The funniest thing about this structure was that there was a massive loo roll core (you know the cardboard bit in the middle of the toilet roll that you, hopefully, recycle when the toilet paper is finished? That!) resting on one side of the horizontal part of the cross. The sculpture's ridiculousness made me laugh out loud.
I absolutely loved Phyllida Barlow's exhibition. I really enjoyed the interactivity that the works allowed. I liked exploring the sculptures from different angles and walking around them and looking into one room from another. It gave me permission to be curious and imagine how the works were made and installed. I loved the colours and the fact that the sculptures could mean nothing and anything. It was a true exercise of the imagination and I would recommend it to all.
The cherry on top was a short video at the end of the exhibition (it is actually at the entrance but I only saw it when I came out). It shows the artist at work in her mega studio with her assistants. I was filled with pride when I saw Phyllida handling a screwdriver with so much confidence and force. I wish I am like that when I am 74!
After seeing the exhibition and listening to Talk Art a second time I just wanted to give Phyllida a hug. She is not only a talented, thoughtful artist she also has a wonderful sense of humour that shines through her work. In a world of Brexit she is a breath of fresh air.
I could go on and on about the other works but you should just go and see them for yourself. And if you can, early mornings are the best - the light makes the whole experience a happier one. And if you have 20 quid to spare I would recommend the exhibition's catalogue. It's not just pretty pictures, it has interesting essays that give a taste of the artist's life as a mother of five children (I only have one and I can totally relate) and a delightful interview.
Phyllida Barlow is an inspiration to all artists out there. She was only picked up by a major gallery ten years ago (yes, in her mid sixties) and she never gave up. I will support her any day of the week.