I’ve collected driftwood from beaches for years. A particularly large piece hangs by the door to my house. Every time I enter, my fingertips brush along smooth and rough edges— and for a moment, I can hear the rush of water and waves against wood, the grating of sand and against its surface.

The potential of a sensory response, and the lasting memory of an experience, lies at the heart of Barlow’s latest exhibition ‘cul-de-sac’ at the Royal Academy. In one of the most striking sculptures, untitled: blocksonstilts, huge polystyrene containers balance precariously near the ceiling on top of wooden stilts. Plaster drips where the joins are bound together. Standing under the gigantic construction, and looking at it from all different angles, for a second I think I hear the smack of wet against wood.

Installation view of Phyllida Barlow RA cul-de-sac, Royal Academy of Arts, showing untitled: barrel; 2018–2019 (left) and untitled: shadowplatform; 2018–2019 (right)
Artwork: Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. © Phyllida Barlow
Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography: David Parry

This artificiality carries across all three sequential rooms of the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Gallery. In the first, poles hanging with colourful fabrics turn out to be attached to concrete blocks. In the second, what at first seems to be a monumental concrete column from an antique temple is actually one of Barlow’s characteristic fusions of man-made materials. Close inspection reveals where Barlow has connected and disconnected her components, and the sculptures seemingly natural appearances are undercut by visible brushstrokes, joins and manual processes. This incongruity generates an element of beauty in her work— it’s what makes you drink everything in.

Barlow uses inexpensive materials including timber, plywood, plaster and polystyrene.

Such everyday materials challenge the monumentalism and formalism of 1950s and 1960s Modernist sculpture. Although Barlow began her career responding to such formalism, she now works against it. She pitted the raw against the refined in 2017 when she represented Britain at the Venice Biennale with sculptures that looked like they could topple at any moment. Colourful things crammed on top of each other invaded the viewer’s space. In many ways, this exhibition is a reaction against her last. She strips back the confrontational aspect she exploited at Venice, focusing more on how a single object can contain the same tensions and challenges. Barlow’s aim is no longer to create tension between the object and the space it sits in. Now she refers to the space as a ‘protagonist’, and part of the process. The exhibition is less overwhelming, but no less compelling.

Installation view of Phyllida Barlow RA cul-de-sac, Royal Academy of Arts, showing untitled: lintelshadow; 2018-2019 (foreground) and untitled: canvasracks; 2018-2019 (background)
Artwork: Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. © Phyllida Barlow
Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography: David Parry

The sculptures represent not only how materials have come in contact with each other by chance, but also how we encounter things with our physical bodies— like the act of looking up at the skyline for freedom in a busy city, or out of a window. It’s why so many of the sculptures engage with height— you have to use sight and longing to reach up. This goes back to the idea of an encounter with one of Barlow’s sculptures creating an impression of that experience, or morphing into previous impressions of an experience, in addition to that of the object. In the second room untitled: shadowplatform has a beach-like quality. Bits of timber have been crammed through wooden platforms covered with paint. Looking up at the sculpture, the image morphs into a rusty pier in my mind. It’s a cross between something you’d find at a child’s playground and a gigantic hand-made sculpture you might find on the beach sculpted from foraged materials. Across Barlow’s exhibition, urban and natural inspirations collide.

Barlow’s sculptures teach us to look quickly, not to dwell, and to let our glances exist as associations and impressions that can inform our daily existence. They speak to the human condition— teaching us to appreciate change and honing. As I step outside after the exhibition, the concrete pavements look different— half cracked, half repaired, and even accommodating of their flaws.

Words by Molly Moss.

Phyllida Barlow’s work is being exhibited at Royal Academy of Arts from until June 23rd. For more information and tickets, visit Royal Academy of Arts.  

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