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06 May, 2009

A colossal chill

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Phyllida Barlow shapes her memories into the fantastical forms of an embattled planet, finds Jessica Lack in this week’s exploration of contemporary artists

Phyllida Barlow once said the best way to look at sculpture was in the dark. She wasn’t being derogatory, though, as Barlow believes that it’s only when the sculpture’s image has disappeared into the blackness that the chill of its presence can be felt.

Considering the size of some of her constructions, it is hardly surprising that she talks of physicality; some of Barlow’s works are colossal, scraping ceilings and straddling the width of a gallery. Visitors are often confronted with towering, tottering forms that they are compelled to navigate a bit like an unstable building site. Her mottled assemblages are nearly always fabricated from detritus – from wooden palettes to plastic wrap – and splattered in paint and Plaster of Paris. They look like a health and safety nightmare – recent works are covered in so much red tape that she could conceivably be making a joke of this.

Barlow studied at Chelsea School of Art and the Slade. At Chelsea she was taught by George Fullard, whom she describes as a brilliant visionary who rejected traditional methods of stone carving and clay, and sent his students off to forage for materials on the street. When she emerged from art school in the mid 1960s, it was into a world enthralled by the heavy metal boys led by Anthony Caro. Her scavenged structures, first built due to economy, were more human than these monstrous statements of steel and might. One of the legacies from those pop art days is her use of brightly coloured household paint, slapped on to bits of wood that are then built into rickety scaffolds. What is unusual is that Barlow invariably dismantles her sculptures after an exhibition and recycles the materials into other works. It is perhaps this cyclical arrangement that impresses on each work a sense of history.

She has described her sculptures in the past as “bad copies” of something she once had a relationship with, be it emotional or physical. From a battered cardboard shelter to a precarious configuration of spindly legs supporting a flabby roof of tarpaulin, Barlow purposely disfigures her memories into fantastical structures that look like the remains of an embattled planet.

Why we like her? For Stack, 2008, a looming pile of painted wood slats commissioned for the Royal Festival Hall last year.

Learning curve: Barlow has taught in art schools for over 40 years, and her students have included a roll call of Turner prize winners and nominees including Rachel Whiteread, Douglas Gordon, Tacita Dean, Steven Pippin and Tomoko Takahashi.

Where can I see her? Phyllida Barlow’s show BRAKE is at One in the Other Gallery, London E2 until 23 May.

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