LOS ANGELES — Glimpse, Phyllida Barlow’s solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, starts with a memory. A poem, also titled “glimpse,” written by the artist and printed in the press release, begins: “outside/ It was a long time ago –” The passage of time and memory seems to haunt Barlow’s colossal sculptures, which come across as both unfinished and in ruins. The poem’s first stanza continues:
An enclosure, on heath land, an outcrop in the heather and gorse; A circle of rusted railings, decrepit, close to collapse, ominous – We ran wildly round this broken construction, revelling in its anonymity and ambiguity, but aware of the notice boards fixed to the railings, eroded into blank facades, but emanating warnings, and threats of danger, It was our discovery, and it would be our place […]
Barlow seems to relish the materiality of detritus and accumulated scraps. Yet she imbues her artwork, made of everyday and impermanent materials, with an intimacy brought on by ephemerality and loss.
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Born in Newcastle, England, in 1944, she grew up in London amid the rubble of World War II. Adventure and danger born of ruins, perhaps imbued with those memories, loom across glimpse’s landscape. She assembled the sculptures onsite within the mid-sized gallery, which is also outfitted with a small mezzanine. As a result, they wholly inhabit the space, tilting or curving in rhythm with the architecture, consuming it. Everything is in close quarters: viewers have to squeeze between a low platform and the wall in some spots; from the mezzanine, the tops of the tallest sculptures can almost be touched.
The improbable balancing acts that Barlow pulls off with her sculptures are enabled by lightweight materials masquerading as pure concrete, metal, or stone whose precariousness, even if an illusion, adds a dramatic flair. The works flaunt their impermanence; the largest appear to be the most prone to collapse.
Near the center of the main level is the exhibition’s most monumental and vertiginous work, “untitled: flight iv” (2019–20). Staircases swoop out from either side of a frenzy of wood stilts, stopping in mid-air just short of the ceiling. The lopsided construction — propped up on its spindly legs, its cubist “wings” in full flight — is both lumbering and gravity-defying. On the far end of the gallery, the somber gray “untitled: catcher ii” (2020), with sagging cement-coated “sails,” nearly butts into another colossus: a towering cluster of crisscrossing wood planks holding aloft balls of white plaster and painted concrete sandbags, swathed in colored fabric (“untitled: undercover ii,” 2020). Tucked in a corner beneath the mezzanine, a biomorphic form with three thick, truncated legs could almost be a prehistoric monument, but its textured patina of dirty white, gray, and magenta subverts any timeless aura (“untitled: girl ii,” 2019).
Although the show’s overall palette is subdued, bursts of color add a radiant warmth and emphasize Barlow’s sense of play. At the same time, the allusions to ruins, peril, and pain coax out the underlying “threats of danger,” that she writes about in her poem. The resemblance between hospital bandages and the plastered scrim in “untitled: undercover ii,” with its palette of reds and pinks, transforms the wood beams into crutches; suggesting giant wayside crosses, the crisscrossed beams underscore a current of injury and death.
While the ramshackle “untitled: flight iv” appears similarly rife with danger (harking back, as Barlow narrates in her poem, to those irresistible adventures of childhood), up on the mezzanine level the absurdity of “untitled: pricked up ii” (2019), with its tactile bunny ears atop creased cement blocks, is tinged with comic bathos. A more sobering construction, “untitled: skirt ii” (2019), stands at the precipice of a platform; a sister work to “untitled: girl ii,” its scuffed white surface is streaked with red, dispelling any notion that “skirt ii,” like its counterpart, “girl ii,” is purely abstract — though the form alone carries the weight of a body.
Situated between these two works is the locus of trauma, “untitled: hostage ii” (2019). A black rubber tarp cloaks an amorphous form atop two rectangular terra cotta “legs,” the whole bound at the center by rubber tubing. As Michael Glover wrote here recently of a miniature version on view in London, the work originated from the story of a woman in Iran who was accused of adultery and stoned to death.
The backstory de-sublimates the image’s horror with a gut punch (and instantly codes the abject body as a woman’s). The large version here has no accompanying explanation, but the title edges the form out of its material thing-ness into a mammoth brutalized body that captures “girl ii” and “skirt ii” in its orbit. Yet “untitled: hostage ii” stands apart from the others. The most literal of these works, its eerily mute presence points all the more to the dehumanizing effects of violence. The obscenity of the violent act irrupts in glimpses of hot pink on each side beneath the tarp. Every oblique allusion to danger, or death, in the show viscerally surfaces in these two flashes of color.
In attempting to convey atrocities that confound language, Barlow comes up against a paradox with no easy resolution. The novelist W. G. Sebald, another child of WWII who confronted the ghosts of memory (specifically the Holocaust), said in his last interview, “[…] no one could bear to look at these things without losing their sanity. So you would have to approach it from an angle.”
Barlow herself writes in the poem “glimpse”: “to sense the weight and light and time of empty space intruded upon by the reach and stretch of unnameable things.” The exhibition, and especially “untitled: hostage ii,” approach these “unnameable things” from an angle, but they leave a trace that lingers like the shadow in our eyes after staring at the sun.
Phyllida Barlow: glimpse continues at Hauser & Wirth (901 East 3rd Street, Los Angeles, California) through May 8. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.