Phyllida Barlow’s cul-de-sac showcases an entirely new body of work at the Royal Academy of Arts located in the contemporary art galleries, The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries, which will be open until 23 June 2019.
The British Sculptor is famous for her use of inexpensive everyday materials to create precarious structures filling spaces which they are held. In the form of a “cul-de-sac”, with only one way in and out, there are no barriers for visitors to explore the artwork. The guide that accompanies the exhibition explains that there are usually three protagonists when it comes to her artwork.
The first protagonist
The first protagonist the artwork itself, her use of materials such as plywood, plaster and polystyrene, in addition to the transparency in how her artwork is created. This is part of her wonder as she breaks the conventions of traditional sculpture. Barlow takes inspiration from her surroundings; particularly domestic and street worlds. The untidiness of urban leaving, repairs of buildings and infrastructure repairs holds a fascination for Barlow and is often expressed in her work.
Using such inexpensive materials enables Barlow, unlike bronze, stone or steel; to retain the freedom to make changes to her artwork as it develops, or even change/redo previous works; conveying a sense of transience and impermanence. The unrefined quality of her work, combined with the appearance that it will topple over any minute reflects the chaos and messiness of urban life.
Her work may not be considered beautiful but it certainly emits great energy; when looking at the art close up, the creative process is clear. A visitor should also consider whether you have space to run should the artwork decides to shift from its position of zen!
The second protagonist
The second protagonist is the exhibition space which Barlow considers to be of equal footing with her artwork. The relationship between the two is crucial and the placement of the installations are carefully considered. This is demonstrated wonderfully in this exhibition where her voluminous work fills the whole gallery space. When one looks up, it is difficult to separate her towering structures with the ornate gallery’s curved ceiling. They are as if one.
The third protagonist
The third protagonist is us – the visitors to the gallery. How the individual pieces are placed and how one might circumnavigate around them (such as there is only one way in and out); to explore and wander around spaces is of critical importance in Barlow’s work. The encounter and the residual memory that the visitor is left with has long preoccupied her. This is particularly explored when she represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2017. She considers how the public reacts and interacts with inanimate sculptural installations (normally one would just stand and stare). This is carefully considered in this exhibition and as a visitor took the opportunity to weave in and out of the artwork and get up close without being reprimanded. Being able to explore is freedom.
When searching to understand Barlow’s influence of her work, or what art movement she is part of, it is clear that she remains undefined and does not follow convention. Her work shows influences from Arte Povera, Pop Art and New British Sculpture amongst others. Arte Povera means “poor art” where poor refers to the use of inexpensive materials compared to traditional ones such as bronze or carved marble in sculpture. Using such dispensible materials was to challenge the values of the commercialised contemporary gallery system. The term was coined by Italian art critic Germano Celant in 1967 to describe a group of young and anti-elitist artists. It is considered as one of the most significant and influential avant-garde movement to emerge in Europe in the 1960s. The movement was in contrast to the sensibility of American Minimalism by using performance, and unconventional approaches to sculpture, such as installation. There was no manifesto drawn up for the Arte Povera, as a key factor of the movement was the rejection of rules and pre-existing structures.
The movement was at its height from 1967 to 1972, but its influence on later art has been enduring. In Japan, the Mono-ha group looked into the essence of materials and stepped away from technological modernism. In the US, the terms anti-form and post-minimalism was used to describe work that also rejected the sensibility of Minimalism.
Barlow had an important influence on younger generations of artists through her teaching a the Slade School for Fine Art where she later became a Professor of Fine Art. Her infamous students include Turner Prize-winning and nominated artists Rachel Whiteread and Angela de la Cruz. She became a Royal Academician in 2011 and continues to live and work in London.
What a phenomenal and accomplished female artist, I would recommend this exhibition for anyone interested in contemporary art or one who is curious to try a different art experience. 4 out of 5 pineapples.
With Sweet & Sour Love,
Pineapple Chicken x
P.S For another splendid review of another exhibition of her work please see this article here.