Phyllida Barlow’s exhibition “Demo” augurs well for her presentation in the British pavilion at this summer’s Venice Biennale. One part of “Demo” is dominated by a multifarious structure that fills three adjoining galleries of the Kunsthalle. At the start, a low platform bears a large crumpled pink-and-white paper form, and then the action shifts overhead. Rickety boards are held aloft by wooden poles, which create a forest visitors wander through. The lines of the scaffold construction are not plumb but tilt at all angles. Tangled up in this nest are giant spool-like objects, hunks of expanding foam, and a cardboard-and-foam piece similar in shape to a grand piano lid. Touches of color (red, powdery pink, pale green) punctuate the installation, which progresses with brief pauses between sections. In the final room, there is a slice of open space before the conclusion: two pendulous white polystyrene balls suspended next to each other from the ceiling.
What does Barlow’s title mean? Think of “demo” in terms of protest demonstrations, and the wooden poles in this first part of the show suggest a sea of placards. Think of demonstration models, and the various forms are poised for action: to spin, to drop, to roll. Both readings come readily to mind, as the installation is carefully poised between abstraction and figuration. It also conjures rich associations with other works of contemporary art, such as the towers Anselm Kiefer has been building since 2002 and the chain reaction of Fischli and Weiss’s The Way Things Go (1987), to name only two.
The title, of course, might also allude to the theme of demolition, as is especially apparent in the exhibition’s second part. The Kunsthalle’s upper floor is undergoing renovation. The viewer enters it through the back door, arriving in a bare room with a large platform in the corner and the noises of construction work coming in from the next room. One can peer through seven holes drilled through the wall and watch the men at work. While the workers are doing their jobs, they are also demonstrating demolition in a theater setting constructed by Barlow. Peering through the peepholes, the viewer glimpses, nearly out of sight, a jumble of fiberglass insulation, wood pallets, and twisted metal spiking like iceberg splinters. The exhibition text states that this is Barlow’s sculpture, which the workers will cover in dust as they work and eventually clear entirely away, leaving no trace.
The sprawling main installation will ultimately be dismantled, too, when the exhibition is over. It most likely won’t disappear, however, since Barlow often reuses her previous pieces in new configurations. With her rudimentary materials and willful construction, and by seizing the opportunity to incorporate the parallel building project, the artist makes another bold claim for the transitory, for the value of even a short-lived gesture.
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.