Issue Number: 112
The Lowdown on Phyllida Barlow, the newly elected Academician whose bold and colourful sculptures and installations flag up the challenges of living in an urban environment. By Ben Luke
Phyllida Barlow RA, 'Installation of Untitled: banners', 2010, shown at BAWAG Contemporary in Vienna © Phyllida Barlow/Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth/Photo Oliver Ottenschlager. Is Barlow a new artist on the block?
Yes and no. Born in 1944, she is a great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, and says that growing up learning about Darwin’s attributes – from his doubt regarding his theories to his modesty, kindness and curiosity – made an impact. She taught for many years, becoming the Slade’s first female professor in 2005. Her work has only become more widely visible in the past decade. She recently became an RA, and was one of the judges for the Charles Wollaston Award in this year’s Summer Exhibition. Her first show with Hauser & Wirth opens in September.
Where does she fit into the sculpture scene?
Barlow says her work is ‘a reaction to the denial of self’ that is evident in recent conceptual art. She favours the human touch in her sculpture, in contrast to the prevalent use of appropriation and readymades, where objects from the real world are brought into the gallery as art. This is one reason, she suggests, for her increasing presence on the contemporary art scene. ‘It was as if there was a moment where everyone was ready for something else, to do with the hand-made,’ she says. ‘I happened to be in the right place at the right time.’
Which artists have influenced her?
Barlow was deeply affected by American sculptor Eva Hesse’s experimental approach to materials, in contrast to what she saw as the earnest ‘moral struggle’ in British sculpture in the 1960s: ‘That struggle had to be shown in the work, but here were these artists like Hesse, who explored lightness of touch, and materials that would just do their own thing.’
So what is Barlow’s work like?
‘I am a traditional artist trying to explore traditional processes, and hopefully bring something of myself to them,’ she explains. But while she deals with perennial sculptural concerns, such as volume, shape, weight, surface and space, the materials she uses are unconventional. She takes pieces of hardboard, wood or polystyrene, forms them into simple shapes and covers them in cement, plaster, textiles or vigorously thrown-on paint. ‘The way I treat them is painterly,’ she says. ‘I am almost trying to reinvent the sculptures through the surfaces I put on them.’ Her installations mix up materials and are bold and awkward – the sculptures hang at odd heights, stretch across the room, or are shoved into corners or against the wall.
Why is her art unusual?
‘It is about drawing attention to the way the world around us frustrates and surprises us,’ Barlow says. ‘All sorts of things happen that make me intrigued about our everyday choreography within the urban landscape.’ Untitled: banners (2010, left) reflects Barlow’s attempts to create arresting experiences, interrupting the viewer’s journey through the space with tall, banner-like forms whose wooden legs are stuck into strange, clumpy feet. Barlow seeks to translate into sculpture the way that ‘the inanimate side of the world imposes itself on us and we are then forced to negotiate it’. And one of the crucial weapons in her armoury is her use of ‘attention-seeking colour’, hence the strident reds, oranges and pinks of the banners. ‘There is a histrionic level to my work, which is overwhelming, a kind of taking over, and the strong colour enhances this.’
Why does she like her art to be overwhelming?
Barlow wants to invade the audience’s space to create powerful, visceral experiences – she is not afraid of forcing us to climb over or duck under her sculptures, in order to experience them. The viewers become performers within the environments she creates. ‘It’s an invitation to become physically engaged in the work. It is not just the objects that are on stage – the viewers are on stage as well.’
Phyllida Barlow: RIG Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly, London, 020 7287 2300, www.hauserwirth.com
2 Sep–22 Oct
Ai Weiwei, 'Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn' (detail), 1995, recently elected Honorary RA Courtesy Private Collection. Breaking China
Following his release by the Chinese authorities after weeks of incarceration, Ai Weiwei remains a controversial figure in China. His ceramic works at the V&A’s ‘Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn, Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE-2010 CE’ (0207942 2000, www.vam.ac.uk , 15 Oct–18 March, 2012) reveal his iconoclastic approach to art. Whether emblazoning Neolithic urns with Coca-Cola logos or dipping them in synthetic paint, his works are bold comments on the Chinese regime’s destruction of historical Chinese artefacts.
Pipilotti Rist, Still from 'Ever is Over All', 1997. Courtesy Pipilotti Rist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine, New York Smashing Art
Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist pushes video and installation art to sensual and visual extremes. In 1997 she took the art world by storm with Ever is Over All, a compelling and hilarious two-screen video that pairs lush images of flowers with slow-motion footage of a woman skipping along a street, pausing occasionally to smash a car window. Rist’s show of over 30 works at the Hayward Gallery (0844 875 0073, www.southbankcentre.co.uk , 28 Sep–8 Jan, 2012) includes new installations and promises serious sensory bombardment.