For “Siege,” her first solo exhibition in New York, 68-year-old British artist Phyllida Barlow made seven new sculptural installations. In accordance with her tendency to invade and disrupt space, these quasi-architectural pieces took over the entire fourth floor of the museum, dangling from or soaring toward the ceiling, abutting the walls or hanging high upon them, and spilling over the floor. Some projected a dual, even contradictory nature: monumentality on the one hand, collapse on the other. Most were constructed of some combination of painted and varnished polystyrene and concrete components (with wire mesh, scrim, burlap, plastic and other materials in the mix). With many pieces looking scorched or ravaged, the exhibition evoked a post-cataclysmic environment.
The centerpiece was a group of 21 tall, closely arrayed gray arches of various sizes (Untitled: 21 arches) made of predominantly gray, stacked components touched up in slipshod fashion in pastel pink, yellow and blue: a wry cross between Druidic ruins and domestic plumbing at neck-craning scale. Viewers likewise gazed upward at a structure (Untitled: balcony) of crossed frets and rails mounted near the top of a wall. Coarse and irregular, it looked as though it had become encrusted over time. Balconies can imply a site of significance, but this one appeared ill-suited to stage any event of note.
On the floor, a crude, unruly mass vaguely recalling a John Chamberlain sculpture rested on a big nest of crumpled yellow fabric (Untitled: compressed stockade). Adjacent was a mound (Untitled: mass sticks, bound tubes, bunting) of stark black bundled planks and tubes randomly nestled in red, pink, white and yellow plastic strips, something like big confetti. It struck an oddly cheerful note in a work that ultimately calls to mind a destroyed ship, with scorched wreckage floating in the sea. Of similarly contradictory effect, a two-part piece resembling large cardboard boxes squashing what look like big pillows suggests a deflation of mighty industrialism (untitled: crushed boxes).
Barlow has shown continuously in England since the 1960s (and internationally since 2003), and taught for 40 years at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, with some of her students (Rachel Whiteread, Douglas Gordon, Tacita Dean et al.) achieving eminence. Her work’s purposefully shoddy esthetic and its combination of hand-wrought and prefabricated materials anticipated a current vogue in sculpture. Barlow, however, has been practicing her own brand of guerrilla antiformalism since well before many of her younger contemporaries drew their first breaths. As this indelible exhibition proved, she is in her prime.
Photo: View of Phyllida Barlow’s Untitled: 21 arches, 2012, polystyrene, cement, scrim, paint and varnish, approx. 23 feet high; at the New Museum.