Phyllida Barlow: ‘Cul-de-sac’

In bold opposition to traditional formalism and monumentalism in Sculpture, Barlow strives to challenge this by creating expansive sculptural installations through utilising more accessible and familiar materials such as those we associate with industrialism, including timber, plywood, plaster and concrete. These act as direct associations with what feels like the eternal urban construction site that we live in, the messiness of our metropolitan surroundings, constantly being added to or removed from, building ourselves into a carefully orchestrated concrete ‘palace’ that consistently needs to be updated and rejuvenated. Like most modern cities of today, London rarely sleeps. It’s restlessness seemingly lying more so in its constant need for restoration and revival than in the literal sense. The environments we operate in are often a reflection of ourselves, this speaks of a thirst within society to compete. Through her comical juxtapositions and sometimes chaotic assemblages, Barlow appears to be poking fun at this attitude through the admirably blatant and unapologetic way in which she creates her own orchestration of fixtures and constructions which mirrors our evolving city.

Playing an intrinsic role in Barlow’s practice and process, a hand-made quality is deliberately evident in the visibility of brushwork and manual moulding for instance, making direct reference to physical labour and construction in the making of work, highlighting an aesthetic of instability and transition. This appearance may also affect the way in which audiences manoeuvre their way around the gallery space, with heed, as one would an actual construction site. This alludes to the artist’s interest in the essential movement of spectators around her work and the manipulation of such. Essential because she believes this to be the motion and perhaps fluidity sculpture lacks in a world filled with moving images. The exhibition’s title, ‘Cul-de-Sac’ making reference to the infrastructure of the three interconnected galleries which enable and encourage audiences to interact with the space and the work itself, doing so in a subtle way that demands a physical assessment of the environment whereby viewers don’t realise how submerged they are until they’ve investigated each installation and find themselves meandering through the rooms.

During her Press View Barlow made note of the physical process behind ‘untitled: canvasracks; 2018-2019’ whereby the action of throwing the weighty canvas sheets over the frames and actually getting them into position was the most challenging aspect of the piece. The compositions, scaling and materials used mirror the nature of a real construction site in which a large team must work together to meticulously design and manually build something whilst taking safety precautions into consideration. These choices also reflect her relationship and approach to the materials she uses as she enjoys revisiting, readjusting, reapplying and adapting original formations at the same time allowing installations to take on industrial colour palettes often found in building sites ensuring parallels between concept and execution on multiple levels, giving her work much depth for examination and exploration.

A collaboration of sorts takes place between the artist and the space presented by the gallery, as Barlow allows the environment to dictate the potential of her creations, touching on the possibilities and restrictions of their surroundings alike, using this as guidance for the direction her work takes. There is a notable discussion between the structure that is formed and the room that hosts it, as spectators can follow the mindset of the installation’s origin and the starting point for the artist’s vision. This is a significant rarity as audiences don’t often receive access to both the beginning and end result, in this case one feeding into the other, co-existing. This enables audiences to become an integral part of the work’s anatomy.

Phyllida Barlow: ‘Cul-de-sac’ runs until 23rd June 2019. at the Royal Academy of Arts London.

Words: Caoimhe Rogan