The Cannibal: Phyllida Barlow at Hauser & Wirth
Phyllida Barlow: …later at Hauser & Wirth
November 5 to December 22, 2012
32 East 69th Street, between Madison and Park avenues
New York City, 212.794.4970
British artist Phyllida Barlow is something of a speed freak: her site specific projects thrive on tight deadlines and a sense of immediacy. Taking her cue from Arte Povera, she works with humble materials readily available in city streets and construction sites. She focuses more on process than final product, and has a history of cannibalizing supposedly finished works to create new ones. At their best, her outsized objects and unstable arrangements intentionally overwhelm and clutter their exhibition spaces. The body-consciousness they elicit induces a deeply felt maneuvering through often awkward, occasionally menacing, and ever-protean urban environments.
As soon as you walk in the door of Hauser & Wirth’s relatively modest Upper East Side townhouse you are confronted with one of Barlow’s teetering hulks sliding off a clumsy stack of shipping palettes. Notions of monumentality, permanence, and ownership are clearly and comically at stake. Tiled haphazardly with what seem like shoddy monochrome paintings, this tooty fruity tower reaches from floor to ceiling and almost wall to wall. Visitors have to squeeze by one another to get past it. Navigation is further complicated by what appears to be a slab of cement (it’s not, I gave it a tap) bisecting the body of the piece and jutting out about head height. Made of the same material, a zigzag shape suggests a staircase to nowhere on the opposite side. Called untitled: upturnedhouse, this piece immediately brought to mind Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau (1933), Gordon Matta-Clark’s building cuts from the 1970s, and House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread, who was one of Barlow’s many students during her forty-year teaching career.
Emerging in the 1970s, much has been made of Barlow’s slow cook time (as defined by our youth-obsessed culture) in terms of high-profile exhibition success. New York audiences may have encountered her work for the first time just this past summer in her New Museum show, siege. Born in 1944, Barlow is old enough to have experienced post-war London with its lingering piles of rubble. Looking at images from that period, I can see how impressions of devastation and recoveryled Barlow to embrace a provisional aesthetic and “crap materials,” as she calls them—as well, early on, as financial necessity. Now, Barlow’s work is a timely reflection of our many recent challenges—pace Hurricane Sandy—as well as the cyclical nature of things.
Consequently, it’s little wonder the rest of the gallery’s ground floor feels like a staging area; whether things are being built up or torn down is unclear. After passing a thick, wall-mounted stack of what looks like burnt wall slats, a series of Barlow’s chunky “lumps” and a tubular “block” hang from rubber umbilical cords like pockmarked planets. Here, the ghost of Eva Hesse looms large. Standing beneath these heaving meteors feels like a bad idea, like walking beneath a suspended piano or a wrecking ball. Adding to the sense of menace, because it impedes access to the gallery’s staircase, is a lumpen sewage pipe-like form sitting heavily on a loose pile of floor-bound lumber. Reminiscent of “outsider” artist Judith Scott, Barlow obsessively wrapped individual planks with colorful, bandage-like strips of fabric make this one of the more anthropomorphic pieces in the show. (Another is a torso-like lump upstairs called untitled:holedwall). It’s clear to me where Angela de la Cruz, another of Barlow’s students, found inspiration in such deliberate distress.
As for Barlow’s surfaces, they are mostly crud-encrusted, looking ancient and unearthed. The layers are built up from things like polystyrene, expanding foam, wire netting, paint, cement, and fabric. Like Jacques Villeglé’s ripped and peeled accretions, they act as a temporal record, reflecting an interest in the urban patina produced by smog, grime, pigeon poop, and rapid turnover—use, hasty repair, and reuse.
On the whole, the exhibition is less successful when the work doesn’t take up enough space, when it doesn’t get in the way or threaten. This is the case with the three ten-foot tall columns of foam, felt, cardboard, etc.—many more of them were needed—and with the three stand-alone objects in the gallery’s front room. More powerful was a row of densely packed “awnings.” These gray, visor-like roofs draped festively in layers of colored fabric, with threads hanging from ripped edges, invite visitors to duck beneath their partial protection.
The way these pieces are made from a patchwork of monochromatic wood scraps is reminiscent of a Rachel Harrison sculpture. Like Harrison, Barlow also has fun with a convention of sculpture: the display pedestal. In a separate room upstairs, she created a maze of wonky, taller than average pedestals brushed with an energetic, scatological stucco of paint, sand, and cement. Among the lumps and coils—signifying art—precariously perched atop these intentionally irregular plinths are a few cartoony, somewhat recognizable objects from the generic artist’s/worker’s studio such as anvil, chainsaw, projector. Barlow literally places making (or process) on a pedestal giving it equal footing with what’s made. These sloppy objects could also easily be at home in Claes Oldenburg’s The Store (1961). So is this a touch of commodity or institutional critique? Is this a questioning of artistic authorship? Maybe. Suddenly, Barlows are in demand, which must feel strange for an artist accustomed to breaking things down for what comes next.