Phyllida Barlow

After 40 years the artist's unpolished, impermanent art steps into the light

By Oliver Basciano

Phyllida Barlow, Drift, 2007. Courtesy the artist

It’s late on in our conversation that Phyllida Barlow recalls a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). In it the comic, in the guise of Hitler, dances with an oversize inflatable globe. Though his movement is near perfect and the object near weightless, Chaplin risks being overcome by the dwarfing nature of the prop. When I met the artist in her cramped East London studio, a similarly awkward dance was taking place: three assistants wrestling with a towering and seemingly cumbersome, partially finished work, coming at it from all angles as they stuffed fragmented polystyrene into the top.

The work is destined for the Serpentine Gallery, where Barlow is having a two-person show (alongside Nairy Baghramian) this month. The exhibition forms part of a recent acceleration in the artist’s exhibiting CV, catalysed by her retirement from a 40-odd-year teaching career, during which she proved an enduring influence on a generation of practitioners (most directly Rachel Whiteread and Angela de la Cruz, but also artists such as Douglas Gordon, Tacita Dean, Conrad Shawcross and Tomoko Takahashi). Shows at Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel, London’s Domo Baal and One in the Other galleries, and a solo exhibition at Studio Voltaire, which coincides with the Serpentine outing, not only mark a new stage for Barlow as a selling artist, but are also having a fundamental influence on the sixty-six-year-old’s thinking about her practice. “Is it not the case that most art produced is that which is not seen?” she asks as we approach the subject. “What does not having exhibitions do to creative people?”

The last question is one that Barlow has clearly been asking herself through her work since the early 1970s, when shows weren’t so forthcoming and the financial responsibilities of raising a family steered her towards teaching, most recently at London’s Slade School. In her works – typically, but not exclusively, large scale, created through a hastily ad hoc process of bundling everyday utilitarian materials – the theme of the unfinished, the unresolved is ever-present. Which, of course, has not been without its problems.

Indeed, as she discusses her output of the 1980s, Barlow describes finding herself firmly on the wrong side of the decade’s aesthetic fashions, which decreed sculpture should mimic the commodifiable object (here she cites Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach as obvious examples): “My practice is a resistance to the glamorous art object. In the period when I started this journey, the destination for art was clearly demarcated.” Being too poor and having too many familial responsibilities to commit to a full-time practice forced Barlow to turn to cheap materials, often sourced from the rubbish tip or the street, for her sculptures. Of late, though, Barlow is enjoying a career where her works do have a gallery destination: in part due to the time she is now at liberty to dedicate to her practice, having retired from the salaried stability of education, but also down to a partial turn in art’s aesthetic fashions, away from gloss to the more prosaically and roughly made. It’s as if, through her teaching, she has inadvertently influenced a generation to pave the way for her own works’ emergence. Barlow had become used to making art objects that would sit outside the mainstream; that they increasingly sit within it is a contrast that isn’t lost on, and indeed is seemingly relished by, their maker.

Barlow’s response to this potentially disruptive dichotomy lies in her mode of presentation: her use of the destination, the gallery space, as a place of experimentation that rejects the normal accepted narrative of an art object: conception → studio realisation → gallery install. Instead works are frequently made within the exhibition space, with very little predetermined design. Consequently, they are not only site-specific, but also particular to the constraints of their build, be those limitations of time or labour. And more important still, they outwardly declare these restrictions in their evidently pragmatic rearrangement of materials.

As if to confirm this, Barlow notes that she was rather taken with the way a delivery firm had stacked up the elements for her Hide (2010) installation in Basel (where it was eventually installed as part of a group exhibition curated by Berlin-based independent space Silberkuppe); and I get the impression she is only half joking when she says she was tempted to abandon plans for a full-scale recreation of a petrol station shell, preferring the unintentional sculptural amalgamation of the material pile instead. In the end, of course, she stuck to her original plan. Though her works aren’t predetermined in form, Barlow gives her assistants very specific instructions on the application of the materials, tasking them to mimic simple actions of making. “I ask them just to use one gesture and to never go back over it. It doesn’t matter how it ends up; I say just put it on as if it’s a job which has got to be done in the shortest possible time.” The result being that physical labour – including the personal discrepancies of each individual labourer – is always very evident in Barlow’s work, and that another commonsense idea of art – the artist/genius as sole author of a work – is destabilised in the viewer’s mind.

While Hide is possibly one of the least abstract projects the artist has ever undertaken, it is true to the sense that, in an almost ghostlike way, Barlow’s works never entirely find their final resting place in the world, least of all the gallery space. Indeed, the spontaneous logic of their making decrees that when they leave the gallery many of those works are as quickly destroyed as they were assembled, existing only as a trace – in the memories of an audience and the photographs that document their presence.

Perversely, however, it was the resurrection of works of art that led Barlow to this notion of the temporary. In 1976 she gave new life to a stack of discarded paintings on framed canvas: Shedmesh, exhibited at London’s Camden Arts Centre, consisted of stretchers hammered together to form a cube just under two metres each side, from which she hung the separated and bedraggled canvases. Barlow puts the impermanence of the works down to the manner in which she sees exhibitions as theatrical expression and the works as transient props. Consequently the studio becomes a rehearsal space in which she and the assistants ‘practise’ their actions, and the gallery the stage upon which the real drama happens. “Initially the audience is myself”, she says. “How I’m physically negotiating the space is often more important than the object itself. They are obstacles to be navigated, protagonists that I feel I’m encountering. The private view consequently comes as a terrible shock, because here are all these people who are there to use the space. It feels extraordinary that the audience are being allowed on the stage and are somehow grabbing the script from me!”

In talking about her daily motivations, Barlow mentions the navigation of litter in the street that might sit in the same place for days; the shrinelike quality of abandoned roadworks; and, omnipresent in the area surrounding her studio, building site defences. Her use of DIY, construction and packaging materials again reflects this, but there’s more at play. “Making from lightweight, disposable things pastiches the monument or the monumental. The latter has this heroic, macho thing that I’m attracted to, but which conversely I couldn’t possibly do myself”, she explains. “So there’s this idea of playing the monumental game but with these crap materials, and because they are crap materials, you can mess around with them, tilting them or balancing them: forcing them do nonmonumental things. It’s both comic and grimly authoritarian, and that’s my relationship to sculpture”.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of ArtReview