Phyllida Barlow. glimpse at Hauser & Wirth
Hauser & Wirth, los Angeles
Through May 8, 2022
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious…the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.Albert Einstein
Glimpse… a momentary or partial view.
Written by Nancy Kay Turner
Phyllida Barlow’s looming sculptures, some nearly two stories high, are marvelous beings that totally transform Hauser & Wirth’s enormous gallery into an imaginary world evoking lost realms, ruins, sunken ships and all sorts of epic journey’s — real, mythic or legendary. Entitled “glimpse,” the massive scale is a witty nod to Hollywood’s cavernous sound stages where entire universes are created and destroyed daily. Barlow’s work is characterized by its raw materiality, by the evidence of the makers hand and by its insistence on using ordinary materials in a seemingly haphazard but effective manner. These idiosyncratic works celebrate the do-it yourself aesthetic where one sources non-traditional materials to use in new ways. Barlow credits her mother, who was creative, with inspiring her to make doll house furniture from match boxes and other materials found around the home. Barlow’s imaginative works keep the sense of play while defying categorization. The sculptures on the first floor seem to be either in the process of becoming or disintegrating. Always in flux, they have a complicated relationship with gravity: one which leaves the viewer unsure of their steadiness.
“untitled: undercover 2” 2020, scrim, plaster, polyurethane foam, paint, PVA, calico, steel, dimensions variable is a case in point. From the first floor one sees a variety of spindly wooden angled struts like legs holding up brightly colored paint smeared bags and various wooden frames. The whole unwieldly sculpture seems top heavy and precarious about to implode and dump its contents. The viewer is encouraged to walk underneath this immense sculpture – if they dare. To be near this work is to be humbled by its sheer scale. It’s as if one has gone down the rabbit hole and eaten the cookie that shrinks us, along with Alice. However, from the mezzanine, the piece looks entirely different as the viewer looks down on it and does not feel in imminent danger. From that vantage point the vibrant multicolored round forms are visible, jumbled together like a scrap heap — either a paean to discarded materials in trash sites or a warning about our disposable culture’s excessive garbage. This piece is surprisingly poetic and paradoxically reconciles the abject with the colossal.
While “untitled: undercover 2” is slightly ominous and animated, “untitled: catchers” 2020, cement, scrim, steel, 224 3/8 x 474 3/8 x 437 inches, is quite serene, though it hints of great journeys, its draped open weave fabric reminiscent of sunken sailing ships hidden on the ocean floor. Here the muted neutral color only amplifies its ghostly presence, the big cement blocks anchoring it to the floor. Like Ozymandias, it seems like a vestige of faded glory from the age of exploration and the search for new lands, spices and, of course, gold. Next to it is one of my favorite works “untitled: flight VI,” a highly theatrical piece with two giant staircases — each heading in opposite directions looking oddly like the mythic albatross about to take flight. The staircases end abruptly, either implying that construction was halted as though by some strange quirk of fate, or the staircase has become unmoored from its landing. This brings the notion of function into sharp relief. For what is a stairway if it leads nowhere? Perhaps it is a metaphor for striving, as one is either ascending or descending, or a spiritual journey with all its ups and downs. These two staircases are balanced uneasily on multiple narrow wooden supports that stand on raked platforms, themselves shifted as if by some great force like an earthquake that speaks to our fragile sense of security. The palimpsest of paint on the stairs themselves is quite lovely showing traces of earlier layers. This enigmatic sculpture captivates with its whimsy and mystery while encouraging the viewer to fabricate a personal narrative. Barlow’s work equivocates between the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen, paradoxically feeling familiar and alien at the same time. In Barlow’s expert hands the commonplace becomes heroic, the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary. Enigmatic and poetic, this is a not to be missed exhibit by a rare and unique talent.