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Phyllida Barlow ‘GIG’

May 04, 2023May 04, 2023

At Hauser & Wirth, London & Somerset, UK, the artist's sculptural forms work with and struggle against space

There is a famous photograph of Eva Hesse, coiffed and in a polka-dot mini-dress, in front of the improbably diaphanous-looking swathes of her sculpture Expanded Expansion (1969). Between 16 fibreglass poles, evenly sized rectangular panels of fabric droop in a hangdog concertina. The photograph was taken in 1969 at the Whitney Museum of American Art; the show is ‘Anti-Illusion: Process/Materials’, now part of the founding myth of Postminimalism. It's the year before Hesse died of a brain tumour, aged 34. I don't know whether Phyllida Barlow saw this image at the time; in 1969, she was three years out of London's Slade School of Art and already teaching there, as she did for the next 40 years. But I can think of no better preface to the artist's oeuvre than Expanded Expansion. Barlow's work is anchored in an ongoing and thoroughly sculptural concern with volumes and their infinite pliability and, in the years since her retirement from teaching in 2009, has occupied ever-larger spaces, physically and symbolically, in terms of both public visibility and blue-chip art world approbation. Hesse's title is calculatedly tautological. It gently, and self-reflexively, mocks Minimalism's rigorous interrogation of length and longevity – inquiries about which her own sculpture was, on many levels, profoundly sincere. Expanded Expansion suggests superfluity, and the necessity of things that are unnecessary. It's also absurd: the highest accolade Hesse could bestow on her own work, the playful, comic potential of which has generally been eclipsed by the more straightforwardly tragic narrative of her life and early death. Absurd is a word that suits Barlow's sculpture, too – its daftness of scale and Crayola-box colours; at its best it's overblown, like a comedy red nose, as dock (2014), her recent, acclaimed commission for Tate Britain's Duveen Galleries attests. As Barlow herself said recently about her medium: ‘It's kind of absurd, and its absurdity is what I find fascinating.’ In Somerset, her work tumbles spectacularly through four of the five higgledy-piggledy gallery spaces – some of them converted farm buildings, some of them new – that form a wing of Hauser & Wirth's sprawling new gallery-cum-restaurant-cum-guesthouse-cum-education-centre mega-complex in rural Bruton. Designed by architect Luis Laplace with conservation architects benjamin + beauchamp, the converted Durslade Farm is set in 100 acres of fields and woodlands, a couple of which have been beautifully landscaped by High Line mastermind, Piet Oudolf. Talk about expanded expansion.

The scale of the enterprise has surely not been lost on Barlow, who has titled her inaugural exhibition ‘GIG’. A word as flighty as the whirligigs or dancing footsteps that it evokes, ‘GIG’ manages (cannily) to conjure both farmers’ wives of old on their way to market and the very urban hustle of the jobbing jazz man. But Barlow's work feels neither like jazz nor like a jig. It's too cacophonous, too clamorous in its collision of materials and colours. (Outside the galleries, in what was once the farm's piggery, Barlow has even made a giant megaphone, untitled: megaphone, all works 2014, which towers over the red slate roofs of the old farm buildings.) In the first gallery, a converted threshing barn with exposed beams and sandy brickwork, the artist has built her own timber lattice from cheerfully painted planks, which echoes the barn's architecture whilst standing independent of it, inhabiting the space in a provisional, makeshift sort of way (untitled: GIG [detail]). Strung from the climbing-frame beams with thick mountaineering cords are soft, enormous pompoms made from multi-coloured scraps of fabric and paper. Appropriately for a room in which wheat would have been beaten to loosen the husks of grain, the floor beneath is scattered with a rag-tag confetti of fallen pieces, petals and rice replaced by the synthetic brightness of cheap cloth. Barlow has a magpie eye for the easy (to find, to use) materiality of modernity, the lo-tech and everyday – plywood, expanding foam, polystyrene, plaster, cement, plastic piping, Polyfilla, tape – which make up so much of our world that we’ve stopped even seeing them.

In the next room – a low-ceilinged former workshop – Barlow gathered pipes, planks and flattened cardboard boxes, taping them together to form a ceiling-scratching bundle, clad on one side with a mosaic of irregularly sized, painted rectangles of plywood joined into a flat sheet to form a canvas-insinuating plane (untitled: stashhoarding). The relationship between these two elements isn't hierarchical. It is unclear which is behind and which is in front; what is supporting or concealing what. If the neatly right-angled rectangles are meant to form a kind of scrim or screen, then you come at the piece the wrong way for it to be effective – the narrow door of the threshing barn squeezes you out right into the sculpture's scruffy underbelly. This isn't quite an Arte Povera revalorization of bottom-of-the-box materials, nor is it a petticoat-flashing gesture of exposing what is normally not on show à la institutional critique. If anything, you could see untitled: stashhoarding as a kind of second-hand flat pack in which each component is scuffed, bent or ill-fitting from prior use. (Partly out of practicality, Barlow's earliest sculptures were often recycled – broken down into their component parts and then re-worked.) The artist exaggerates a proclivity for gathering – as a semi-bemused expression of the abundance and redundance of materials in our day-to-day life. Do we make because we need or do we need because we make? This is the chicken-and-egg absurdity that informs the work.

Ply and Polyfilla are the stuff of construction and of lived architecture as much as the stonework and beams that Laplace's interior has left so artfully exposed. If Barlow's work has an analogue in sound, it's the clatter of a terrace house being gutted on a gentrifying London street, of a lifetime's accumulation of fixtures and fittings being tossed into a skip. Or: it might be the hullaballoo of Buster Keaton skittering and sliding with his cardboard chimney over the roof of the flat-pack house that he must assemble in haste for his pretty new wife in the short film One Week (1920). (The house, of course, ends up being smashed to smithereens by an oncoming train.) Insides are pulled outside and everything is thrown together. The final sculpture in the sweep of converted barn galleries, untitled: grinder, is an imposing, aggressive construction of sandwiched-together plywood semi-circles that appear to be rotating in a continuous chop. Although its edges are slathered with concrete, the sculpture manages to suggest both the plough of industrial agriculture and, through the fleshy-pink tones of its painted stripes, a demon, Sweeney Todd-esque mincing machine. If the pompoms in untitled: GIG [detail] are coquettishly touchable, I wanted to keep a safe distance from untitled: grinder. Skirting through, I arrived in a bright final gallery of new, expansive proportions. Inside, a row of tall timber sentries, immobilized in cement-clad sandbags, are lined up in a tight rectangular formation, as if guarding the empty central area of floor (untitled: postscorral). Drawing in and forcing out is all part of the game.

Like every child, I was endlessly fascinated by the idea that our small intestines could be over seven metres long – an infinity when you’re not much more than a metre tall. How did they fit, all bunched up in there? This interest in insides and outsides, the possibilities of spilling out, containment, constriction, support and release, seems never to have waned for Barlow, as it never did for Hesse. In Somerset, pushing and squeezing makes a virtue out of necessity, as the sculptural forms work with, or struggle against, the odd concertina of spaces, which feels stuttered despite Laplace's best efforts to integrate new and existing architectures.

If the building design is slightly vexed by square pegs and round holes, this is exactly the kind of spatial and conceptual riddle that has interested Barlow throughout her career. An extensive exhibition of the artist's drawings, on show at one of Hauser & Wirth's Savile Row locations concurrent to the Somerset opening, provided a remarkable adjunct to both the Durslade Farm sculptures and Barlow's Tate Duveen installation, which continues until mid-October. Assembling works made between 1963 and 2013, it attested to half a century of reflection on fitting together forms – using lines to summon volumes, which come together on paper in coloured pencil or, latterly, acrylic, with an easy fluidity that is necessarily absent from the intentionally clunking scale of the sculptural works. Unfolding over the gallery walls in loosely chronological groupings and a variety of sizes and media, repeated coloured forms interlocked and overlapped in an expansive imagined architecture of blocks and curves, lumps and logs. Boundary forms like fences and barricades recur, as does urban clutter. An armchair is the protagonist of one untitled series from 1967–70, a test-form pitched into interior architectures as a measuring stick or lookout point onto almost-recognizable objects – shopping bags and curtains, a fridge-freezer, a desk lamp and chair on which, in one notably anthropomorphic instance, two rounded cones and a slightly pinched egg-shape evoke a seated female. (Perhaps, in the early 1970s, Barlow was dreaming of escape: in a drawing from 1971, an armchair has been covered with a patchwork of leafy greens and wheat-field yellows, a scribbled line forming a crest of grass along its top.) The artist has said that she draws before, during and after the making of a sculpture: all the time, constantly testing or affirming the viability of form.

In the almost unfathomably vast setting (to city eyes, at least) of Durslade Farm, the awkward architecture provides the necessary constrictions for Barlow's work to expand into, and it goes on expanding. It is best when it goes for broke and overreaches itself, even at the risk of falling down, like Keaton on his wonky roof, in an appropriately slapstick turn. After all, as the artist has said, in words with which both Hesse and Keaton would surely agree, the key to it all is the ‘notion of gravity pulling on things, making things collapse, and that potential to collapse’.

Main image: Phyllida Barlow, 'Fifty Years of Drawings', 2014, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Alex Delfanne

Amy Sherlock is a writer and editor based in London, UK.

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