While one might easily dismiss Phyllida Barlow’s sculptures as a big pile of rubbish, that would be missing the point, grossly undermining the meaning behind it. But it is also not too far off the point, for these are a big pile of rubbish, scrap material left over from another concern, but have been carefully arranged in such a way to convey a feeling about an underlying issue.
But, though they maybe carefully arranged, they are not predetermined, precisely laid out to a pre-produced blueprint, as it would be almost impossible to make a blueprint and reproduce these works, and they have a mindlessness, a nonsensical spontaneity to them. But herein lies the problem; how can something be a carefully arranged pile of rubbish and also be mindlessly produced exquisite work of art at the same time?
A Painterly Abstraction
But this different from Christoph Buchel’s giant piles of rubbish, as in Buchel’s case, he is bringing to light some facet of human existence with realism, while Barlow’s is a painterly abstraction done in 3 dimensions, done with found or scrap material. In fact in Untitled: Dock Empty Staircase Hoarding (2014), the front of the sculpture is partially covered with a painting, which also happens to be a recurring motif, a Mondrian-like pattern seen in other works again and again.
Actually if one looks closely, the whole structure for Untitled: Dock Empty Staircase Hoarding (2014) is also an overlapping rectangular pattern, done in 3 dimensions, and occurs ‘subliminally’ in various places in the details of the ‘rubble’.
This overlapping rectangular motif also occurs in the 2015 exhibition ‘Set’, as visitors to the upstairs space are greeted with a giant, menacing 3 dimensional sculpture painting that straddles rebelliously at an angle over the staircase landing, as if the gallery space is not big enough to hold it all.
And we see this motif and associated rectangular structure again in the 2014 exhibition ‘Gig’.
We also see a piece inspired by Frank Stella.
And again in Hoard (2013) and Untitled Upturned House (2012); just where does it come from and what does it mean? While on the surface it appears as a Mondrian pattern, there is actually a deeper meaning behind it, and though Barlow doesn’t explicitly say, I would guess that it comes from an admiration and understanding of the work of the abstract expressionist philosopher, Hans Hoffman.
The Push Pull Theory
Like Barlow, Hofmann also was a teacher of art, teaching at the New York Art Students League and opening his own school later, he was quite an influential figure in the development of abstract expressionism in Europe and United States. Finally he closed his schools in the late 1950’s to concentrate on his own paintings and publishing essays in which he expounds on his art theories. And these theories are without a doubt evident in Barlow’s works.
“Only from varied counterplay of push and pull, and from its variation in intensities, will plastic creation result.” Hans Hoffman
The ‘push and pull theory’ as it is known, is Hofmann’s attempt to introduce a new dynamism into a static, two dimensional painting, in which contradictory elements such as flatness and depth can exist simultaneously. In To Miz – Pax Vobiscum (1964), the use of hue, chroma, saturation, edge smoothness and brush work to make overlapping and abutting rectangles appear to recede or jump out, producing a dynamic play on the viewer’s eyes.
In fact it goes further, for the whole composition is actually a requiem for Miz, his wife of almost 40 years, who died in 1963. ‘Pax vobiscum’ is Latin for ‘peace be with you’ and so the title itself is part English and part Latin, and so while the painting should mournfully be dark and somber, it is in fact bright and bold, expressing his sort of ‘negative ecstasy’. This expresses the paradox of being in mourning and being loud and boisterous at the same time.
The notion of the monument, the historic icon of civic pride and commemoration is also something Barlow addresses. Contemporary monuments, the civic icons that occupy our consciousness nowadays are all about death, destruction and displacement. In Untitled: Sad Monument (2012) what appears to be a mushroom cloud, much like the atomic bombs that went off at the end of World War 2, or a suicide car bomb, or a cruise missile strike somewhere in the Middle East, with multi-colored loops at the base are depicted.
In Tryst (2015), towering hollow grey boxes that look like they’re walking on stilts are shown taking over the gallery space, probably have something to do with the scale of urban development, or cryptically, social development; how institutions can institute change in a place that is somewhat overbearing.
In Tip (2013) a great line of homogeneous hoard of poles with multi-colored ribbons, which I think represents people, is seen clambering into the museum, trying to see the latest show.