Abstract Critical

Phyllida Barlow: Bad Copies

Written by Adam Walker

Henry Moore Institute
April 12 – June 17 2012

There is an intrinsic tension to Bad Copies. Phyllida Barlow is at heart a sculptor; a creator of large three-dimensional objects and installations; and yet this exhibition presents only drawings. Despite this, Bad Copies is still very much about sculpture: sculptural concerns and questions are explored in every one of the drawings. Yet in presenting only these two-dimensional works an intriguing space is created in which Barlow’s practice can be contemplated without the physical immediacy of her large sculptures being actually present. Thus the possibility of a quieter, more reflective consideration of her practice is made possible.

The drawings displayed in Bad Copies span six decades, going right back to Barlow’s time studying at Chelsea and the Slade. As one would expect, there are significant changes and evolutions over such a long period. However all the drawings share an overarching exploration of object, presence and space with line and mark making often apparently pushed into being secondary considerations.

The forms and shapes so familiar in Barlow’s sculpture echo across the works. Importantly though, Barlow is adamant that they are neither plans nor illustrations of her sculptures (*). The drawings explore the same terrain as her three-dimensional works but are also distinct, separate investigations in and of themselves. Experimental making without a predetermined or designed outcome is integral to Barlow’s sculpture, so it is perhaps unsurprising that her drawings are allowed to evolve with this same freedom.

Barlow makes sculptures and installations that demand to be physically engaged with. Her sculptures are never placed on pedestals, and eschew the didactic and monumental. Paradoxically though, they can often be very large and imposing. This contradiction is central to her work: she creates size and scale, yet simultaneous ephemerality and lightness. In part this is achieved through inherently unmonumental materials, which are often either salvaged or easily and cheaply purchasable. Draping fabric also softens many of the sculptures.

Phyllida Barlow Shedmesh 1976 Stretchers, canvas, foam 180 x 180 x 180 cm Camden Arts Centre © Phyllida Barlow Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Lattices, meshes and other hollow constructions feature prominently. In being formed this way, the sculptures manage to occupy an extensive area quickly and efficiently, but often allow partial views through the work. Their size means the viewer is pushed into almost uncomfortable proximity with the sculptures and must pick a route through and around them. This forced interaction highlights Barlow’s desire to challenge previous generations of sculpture where imposing constructions were separated from and elevated above the viewer on pedestals. Even the New Generation sculpture of the 1960s maintained too much monumentality for her: despite their non-traditional materials and methods they still conveyed assumptions of ‘finishedness’ and were inherently objects to be looked at.

Phyllida Barlow RIG: untitled; emptyunits 2011 Plywood, plaster, paint Overall installed dimensions: 300 x 1140 x 750 cm Installation view, 'Phyllida Barlow. RIG', Hauser & Wirth London, Piccadilly, 2011 © Phyllida Barlow Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Peter Mallet

In contrast, Barlow’s sculptures are recycled, evolving constructions, often largely made in-situ. Until relatively recently the materials from each work would be taken apart and recycled into future pieces. Each installation is constructed quickly with no attempt to conceal the hand of the maker. And the sculptural elements do not stand in isolation but instead coalesce into claustrophobic compositions through which the viewer must pick a path. And only in that unique route through each work’s series of unknown angles and viewpoints is meaning produced, as a collaboration between artist and viewer.

Barlow’s practice oscillates between abstraction and representation. The sculptures are very much ‘things’ rather than ‘representations of things’ (something also true of many of the drawings in Bad Copies), but they repeatedly bring to mind architecture and interiors. Forms signifying boundaries such as fences and barriers are especially prevalent, and frequently occur in the drawings too.

A further contradiction that Barlow’s work contains is one of gender. The installations can seem simultaneously both very male and very female. The use of soft material forms and draped fabrics can convey a sense of femininity, while the hard metal, concrete and industrial processes can suggest masculinity, often in the same work.

Phyllida Barlow RIG: untitled; blocks 2011 Polystyrene, fabric, timber, cement Overall installed dimensions: 720 x 1190 x 1040 cm Installation view, 'Phyllida Barlow. RIG', Hauser & Wirth London, Piccadilly, 2011 © Phyllida Barlow Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Peter Mallet

Returning to Bad Copies, many of these same dialogues and contradictions can be clearly seen. The drawings are not ‘illustrations of sculptures’ engaging with their concerns, but a parallel investigation of them on paper. These works seem even more raw and instinctive than the sculptures: whereas the sheer size of the latter means they are constructed with a team of assistants, the drawings are created by Barlow alone in her drawing studio in the privacy of her own home, so can be much more private, personal investigations.

The earliest works on show, fine coloured pencil depictions of arrangements of abstract forms on a plane, prefigure Barlow’s interest in challenging the idea of the singular sculptural object. Like her subsequent installations, these are groupings which interact with one another emphasizing relationships rather than the individual.

Phyllida Barlow Untitled 1965-1966 Coloured pencil on paper 30 x 40.4 cm Photo: Alex Delfanne Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

There is a familiarity to many of the forms pictured. We are constantly reminded of domestic interiors and streetscapes, yet the shapes generally retain a degree of abstraction. The exception to this is a series of diagrammatic renditions of interiors made in the mid 1970s which are the least interesting works on show. Aside from the lack of abstract/representational ambiguity, the pencil markings seem to speak of time and labour and thus lose the sense of unresolved freedom and spontaneity that the other drawings have.

Phyllida Barlow (b.1944) Untitled, 1975 Pencil on paper Leeds Museums and Galleries (Art Gallery)

The frequent familiarity of form is explicable: Barlow explains that her earliest drawings followed on from photographing the Norfolk landscape where jarring man-made structures would stand out like ready made sculptures in the flat terrain. After initially photographing these structures, she then began drawing them in order to play with their geometries and proportions, and to remove unwanted distractions such as people from view (*). Some of the much more recent works in Bad Copies continue to emphasize this sense of isolation, the strong shadows falling across un-peopled spaces often reminiscent of de Chirico.

Phyllida Barlow (b.1944) Untitled, 2001 Acrylic on paper Leeds Museums and Galleries (Art Gallery)

One series of drawings even echoes the recycling that takes place in Barlow’s sculpture. Collages are constructed from paper to which charcoal has been thickly applied that has been cut up and quickly assembled into new compositions. This set of monochrome works is more successful than the diagrammatic interiors, perhaps because the means of composition facilitates speed and instinctiveness.

Phyllida Barlow (b.1944) Untitled, 1980s Charcoal and collage on paper Leeds Museums and Galleries (Art Gallery)

This series of collage works also highlights the increasing trend over time towards the drawings becoming objects rather than images. They themselves increasingly explore discourses of Barlow’s practice, even aside from their depicted content. They are rendered in opaque acrylic: often heavy and thick, occasionally a thinner wash. The paint begins to take on the look of some of the finishes of Barlow’s sculptures and the forms increasingly push out to the edge of the paper creating that same sense of constriction, further enhanced by the backgrounds being painted last and thus pressing in claustrophobically.

Phyllida Barlow (b. 1944) Untitled, c.1998 Pencil and acrylic Leeds Museums and Galleries (Art Gallery)

While the drawings in Bad Copies tread parallel paths of enquiry to Barlow’s sculpture, a physical negotiation through and around cannot of course be instigated. There might be a sense of being pulled into their perspectival space (especially in the case of some of the early colour pencil drawings) but actual sculptural physicality is inherently absent.

Interestingly though, the curation of the exhibition manages to create a slight sense of this. The drawings are arranged floor to ceiling along one long wall, with a further small section of wall at right angles at one end. The way the wall is entirely filled creates a barrier not unlike some of those depicted. And its scale leads one to want to step back, only you can’t as the gallery is on a narrow mezzanine. Some of that same feeling of being pressed up against the work is successfully created.

The strange irony of the relationship between Barlow’s drawing and sculpture is that she has turned the conventional assumptions of value on their head. These quick sketches, often sharing paper space with shopping lists and doodles (*), have been archived over six decades. Of her critically acclaimed sculptures on the other hand, virtually none remain in existence. But Barlow’s most successful work always seems to emerge when she creates most freely and spontaneously. The relative ‘insignificance’ of these drawings means keeping them hasn’t weighed her practice down. Thankfully she has kept them, as they’re almost the only non-photographic evidence there is of six decades of highly influential and significant practice.

* Raikes, S. in Essays on Sculpture 65 – Bad Copies: the drawings of Phyllida Barlow (2012, The Henry Moore Institute)

Adam Walker