With this comprehensive show, Haus der Kunst
launches a series of exhibitions dedicated to female voices in the building's prestigious East Wing. The largest retrospective of Phyllida Barlow's career to date, the show includes nearly 100 works, comprising monumental sculptures from exhibitions of the past two decades alongside a rich selection of drawings.
For the exhibition at Haus der Kunst, Barlow has created "Shedmesh, 2020", a new version of "Shedmesh" from 1975, which no longer exists. Other large format sculptures, such as "untitled: towerholder; 2020" (700 x 180 x 200 cm) and "untitled: catchers; 2020" (600 x 300 x 300 cm per "catcher"), were also created especially for the exhibition. Some works, including "untitled: parasols" (2007), have been reworked, while others (e.g. "untitled: stockade2015") have been adapted to the museum space: for example, "untitled: blocksonstilts; 2018-2019" now consists of five blocks instead of three.
Barlow (born 1944 in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne) is known for her imposing yet seemingly unstable installations made of brightly painted industrial and low-grade materials. These works playfully test the limits of mass, height, and volume.
Through her work, Phyllida Barlow emphasizes the experience of different media and material processes rather than openly metaphorical or biographical readings. The materials she employs include remnants and recyclable waste, like that found on the periphery of day-to-day life (e.g. bitumen, concrete, glass, steel wire, paper, cloth, polyurethane foam, latex, polyethylene, foam, and industrial adhesive). Materials traditionally associated with the visual arts, such as wood, stone and canvas, are only used as props or supports in Barlow's work.
Encounters with each of the works have a spatial, temporal, and imaginary dimension. The time it takes to walk around Barlow's sculptures is paired with the sense of past and future colliding, owing to the fact that some of Barlow's sculptures are made out of material from earlier works. Consequently, every existing sculpture has the potential to be recycled in a future work. This process of production, destruction, and reconstruction mirrors the natural rhythms of creation, growth, and decay that we experience in our own world. It also raises the question of whether, perhaps. the task of contemporary sculptors is to create a particular experience rather than further burden a world that is already overloaded with objects" (Damian Lentini, curator of the exhibition).
When Barlow discusses the terms "near miss" and misunderstanding, she indirectly describes the communion between sculpture and viewer. Whereas feasibility, expediency and efficiency are demands of everyday life, whose faithful accomplice is understanding, for Barlow misunderstanding is a kind of way of life. It is the dark side... where irritation and digressions reign unreservedly and establish their own hierarchies and collisions between order and chaos," concluding, "The land of misunderstanding is probably a kind of hell, but for me it is undoubtedly heaven, too."
Barlow's sculptures have repeatedly been described as if they were human beings. Common to both is a certain awkwardness or clumsiness, sometimes "a bulbous, even cartoon-like appearance" (Briony Fer). It is not quite clear whether Barlow's installations are sites of danger or refuge: balconies on which nobody stands; awnings that shade no one; stages and towers that nobody climbs or can enter; a container that will never carry rubble; columns and plinths without a load-bearing function. Furthermore, these objects are often oversized and thus more suitable for the viewer when observed from below. A certain childhood feeling arises, one typified by cacophony, glut and the revelation of mistakes and shortcomings. The gestural certainty, precision, and care with which the artist stages this often comedic failure is both typical and fascinating.
Via this method, Barlow also comments on the conservative approach of her predominantly male contemporaries, which, in the 1960s, had a constraining effect on sculptural creation far beyond Great Britain. At the same time, she overcomes this constraint with ease. The imposing work "untitled: 100banners2015" at the beginning of the exhibition, serves as an example. Stretched out on a row of thin wooden poles covered in paint and anchored with bright orange sandbags, "untitled: 100banners2015" presents a cavalcade of colors and textures. The sight is so captivating that one needs a moment to realize that the path into the exhibition is nearly impassable. In 2011, when Barlow participated in the show "Sculptural Acts" at Haus der Kunst, the artist obstructed the exhibition space in a similar fashion.
Rather than referring to the artistic trends of an earlier generation, Barlow's work was initially influenced by the urban reconstruction of the postwar period. She does not see her work in the context of gender, although she was disappointed with the exhibitions of the 1960s and described welding, casting, and constructing with fiberglass and resin as "predominantly male activities" (as stated in her essay "Hearsay, Rumors, Bed-sit Dreamers and Art Begins Today", 2003). Gender, however, has played no role for Barlow since the 1970s. Rather the decisive influence for her is the work of artists such as Alberto Giacometti, Jean Fautrier, Pablo Picasso, Eva Hesse, and Louise Bourgeois. Barlow experiments rather than sculpts in the traditional sense. Using her typical materials and composition techniques. she has tirelessly expanded the concept of sculpture over her fifty-year career and developed a unique formal language.
Her understanding of drawing is also idiosyncratic. Barlow often creates her drawings after a work has been completed. Thus, the drawings are not tentative plans, but fruitful, "half-remembered things". The selection of drawings in the exhibition spans from the early 1960s to the present day.
Curated by Damian Lentini
Curatorial assistance: Lisa Paland
Accompanying catalogue with contributions by Phyllida Barlow, Briony Fer, Damian Lentini, Lisa Paland. Gilda Williams and Ulrich Wilmes: published by Hirmer Verlag.