Phyllida Barlow, dock, 2014, mixed media. Installation view.

Phyllida Barlow, dock, 2014, mixed media. Installation view.

Phyllida Barlow

Phyllida Barlow, dock, 2014, mixed media. Installation view.

Over the past decade, Phyllida Barlow has deservedly moved from being a cult artist to exhibiting on the international circuit. This year saw a triple bill from the septuagenarian, including a retrospective of drawings at Hauser & Wirth in London and the inaugural exhibition at the gallery’s new venue in Somerset, but by far the most important of the three shows was the Duveen Galleries commission at Tate Britain. For a sculptor, this is one of the most visible platforms in the country—essentially a long, cavernous hall with vaulted ceilings from which various galleries radiate. Barlow’s ambitious response to the commission was a group of seven sculptures, collectively titled dock, 2014, with which she essentially disrupted the natural flow of visitors through the space.

Barlow has said that her drawings “often originate from half-remembered things.” Likewise, traces of the world remain in her sculpture; hence, fences, billboards, and garbage piles are some of the recurring suggestions in her work. Dock consists of a vertical pipe of cardboard and colored tape, a sprawling pile of wood, a pyramidal scaffolding with a flat-painted wall on one side, a series of scaffolds along one side of the building holding up several unruly bundles and lumps, and five blocky forms suspended from scaffold-like structures, along with a container and tubes.

The first obstacle, untitled: dock: 5hungblocks, is a tour de force. Spanning floor to ceiling and nearly wall to wall like an AT-AT walker out of Star Wars, it consists of five large, container-like blocks. Held by a wooden latticework of straps and wood, and suspended from twenty large wooden pillars as if frozen in midswing, the blocks are, in fact, made from glued-together Styrofoam sheets. In writing about her project, Barlow mentions the suspended forms in the Tate’s collection, among them Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Three-Way Plug, Scale B, 2/3, 1970; Marisa Merz’s Untitled (Living Sculpture), 1966; and Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy, 1990: “They were instrumental in demonstrating to me how suspended sculpture can be more ambivalent than grounded or plinthed works. The suspended sculpture enables circulating air space above, below, and through the works, as if toying with gravity, which confuses the identity of what we are looking at.”

With the increase in the scale of Barlow’s work, it has also become more apparent that gravity, repetition, mass, and balance are important themes; hence, stacking, leaning, amassing, sprawling, and lumping are among the actions that help make her sculpture. Barlow worked with clay as a student and still considers touch a key element of her practice: “I want my hand to be there.” Her hand is usually most evident in the thick application of paint, often in gaudy colors, as well as in the rough-hewn nature of her materials and their handling—including, in the case of dock, squeezed-out agglomerations of glue. Barlow’s lo-fi methods remind us that Arte Povera and anti-form were movements that informed her as a student. Yet, like her contemporaries Richard Deacon and Tony Cragg, she is equally concerned with the reinvention and manipulation of form. Speaking about the Tate commission, Barlow explained, “I want to re-claim the ‘lump’ in a revitalized form, to suspend it, to have space circulating around it in an attempt to manipulate its weight and gravity.” As the word lump suggests, her sculptures have an inherent awkwardness. Barlow’s achievement is to have made this awkwardness her own; in Dock she made it work on an unexpectedly grand scale.

Sherman Sam