‘Every Day is a New Day’ is comprised of two solo shows, and as such comparisons are inevitable. Different as the work of Phyllida Barlow and Michael Armitage are – in medium, in scale, in cultural and social preoccupations – it is difficult to get away from the sense that one is being led through a critical narrative. The first two rooms are dedicated to Barlow’s sculpture and drawings: two bare, white, hangar-like rooms in which one circles her huge structures. Their echo-y quiet allows her sculptures to breathe the questions they so often seem to beg: What is the relationship of one material to another? What processes of child-like curiosity and tactility have created these structures? Are they constructed or deconstructed, created or reclaimed? And then into the next two rooms, where one is suddenly struck by a sensation of intimacy. Armitage’s paintings are like colourful portals into worlds of cultural difference and political dissonance. Unlike Barlow’s sculptures, the paintings are figurative, and charged with lived experience – the artist’s memories of oppression and violence in Kenya where he was raised.
Barlow’s work excels in exposing the points at which construction and deconstruction meet, and how the two practices interact. The larger sculptures on display bulge towards the viewer, gravid with materiality. In the first room, ‘untitled: upturnedhouse 2’ (2012) appears to lean precariously – stand behind it and you get the vertiginous feeling that it is about to fall on top of you, a protruding strut of concrete inches from your head. The work itself is a heavy shed-like structure, seemingly composed of slabs of grey stone and thick, colourful wooden tiles. Another work in the room is by comparison stripped-back and bare – though the large cylindrical container in ‘untitled: brokenstage/hangingcontainer’ (2013) is suspended ominously overhead, the wooden structure of the stage seems ephemeral by comparison, a collection of wooden tables precariously on the verge of collapse.
At the far end of the second room are some of Barlow’s drawings, and it is startling to note the stylistic continuity between the different forms. They exhibit the same concern for colour and an experimental approach to media; moving between pencil and paint, trying out different effects. Still preoccupied with structures, they resemble preparatory sketches for the sculptures, except for one difference: the paper frees Barlow to place these structures in invented worlds, two-dimensional worlds of colour or shadows. They remind us that Barlow’s works – even the mournfully dilapidated ones – are born from fantasy, from a sense of play.
Whilst the colour and two-dimensionality of the drawings might prepare you for Armitage’s works in the next room, their distanced abstraction is far removed from the emotive force of the paintings. I have been told that some visitors have cried in front of them, and it isn’t hard to believe. The first painting you see sets a precedent for the focus of much of his work here – ‘Hornbill (21st - 24th September 2013)’ (2014), a beautifully composed painting comprised of delicate washes of colourful oil paint, depicts one of the four terrorists who perpetrated the 2013 mass shooting at the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi.
There is no denying the beauty of Armitage’s paintings, but what is most viscerally striking is the show’s ability to educate the visitor – and, indeed, educate them about issues far removed from a Kent seaside town and the experiences of family day-trippers who flock there. Read the wall card and you realise that the clown-like grinning figure with a tyre around his neck in ‘Necklacing’ (2016) is the artist’s memory of witnessing torture by gangs in Nairobi as a child. At every turn we are forced to re-evaluate the relationship between beauty, memory and violence.
Armitage largely works on Lubugo bark, manufactured from trees harvested in Uganda. In some of the paintings this cloth is warped, ripped or noticeably sewn up, and there is a tactility to these surfaces which gives them a sense of authenticity. It’s a feeling largely absent from Barlow’s work, which is not only closer to home but also far more well known, with Barlow representing Britain in this year’s Venice Biennale. As brilliant as her works are, it’s probable that visitors to this exhibition are going to come away with Armitage’s colourful, disturbing, politically-charged paintings as their most vivid memories.