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Phyllida Barlow RA cul-de-sac

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

Although her formative years as a student led Phyllida Barlow to study in London at the Chelsea College of Art and the Slade School of Art in the sixties, it seems the industrial north - Newcastle-upon-Tyne - where she was born at the close of WWII has left its mark with the use of timber, plaster and cement in the creation of her work. cul de sac embraces this legacy with its monumental structures that fill the gallery spaces.

Untitled, 2018 Sculpture by Phyllida Barlow at the Royal Academy of Arts 2019
Untitled, 2018 by Phyllida Barlow. Photo Alex Delfanne

The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries 23 February – 23 June 2019

Capital Reviewer met Phyllida Barlow prior to the opening of cul-de-sac and learnt more about the inspiration for the exhibition and the artist overall. When she first entered the RA galleries Barlow was struck by the high walls and narrow rooms. Her immediate intention was to fill the space. “In no way am I a minimalist” she declared.

At first, the rough, unrefined blocks of concrete on stilts and the crude sails of canvas just seem ordinary and commonplace, something to be found on any abandoned building site. “My love of sculpture is absurd”, Barlow admitted. “There are so many objects in the world already.” But to recreate these shapes is something else. In essence, Barlow enjoys recontextualising and manipulating materials.

As you move around cul-de-sac the improbability of these structures is striking. Barlow assures us a structural engineer was present throughout setting up, which is reassuring given the thin stilts holding massive, abstract slabs of concrete. The way in which shadows fall is important to Barlow too. Not only are real shadows effective, but the works are formed from the shadows they create. The concrete slabs are shadows of the plinth in the first gallery space.

The smaller sculptures are quite different and dot the large walls like squashed meteorites. They are rough balls of intertwined metal and mushed material. The bright colours and intricate weaves give an almost delicate effect in contrast to Barlow’s other sculptures, which she acknowledges are big and muscular, if not “a bit macho”.

The idea of a “cul de sac” is also curiously suburban, given that Barlow presents more urban sculptures. Barlow appeared oblivious to that connotation. She explained that it is the semi-circular layout of these galleries, an actual cul-de-sac, that informs the exhibition title.

Seeing her at work in the accompanying documentary in the lecture theatre, we find an artist in muck – sloshing about in a workshop, or perhaps an art factory, covered in paint and liquid concrete, sawing and throwing metal and wood. Most arresting are scenes of post-war Britain and the bomb sites of the East End being demolished. Barlow tells how her father took her to visit these areas of devastation and the impression they left. It is easy to see the influence upon her work as structures crash and implode. And it is remarkable to see the very young artist and the much older woman in conjunction, both with unmade, unassuming aspects absorbed simply in creativity.

Top left: Phyllida Barlow, folly

Installation view, British Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale, 2017

Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

© British Council. Photo: Ruth Clark

Top right: Phyllida Barlow in her studio, 2018

© Royal Academy of Arts. Photo: Cat Garcia

Bottom left: Phyllida Barlow, untitled: pressed, 2018

Cardboard, cement, PVA, paint, plaster, plywood, poly cotton, polyurethane foam, sand, spray paint, tape, timber, steel, 69 x 120 x 58 cm

Bottom right: Phyllida Barlow, demo

Installation view, Kunsthalle Zürich, 2017

Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

© Phyllida Barlow. Photo: Annik Wetter

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