Review by Siofra McSherry
The studio space at Studio Voltaire is dominated by two large wedge-shaped objects that segment the gallery floor and shift the viewer gently around into corners and in-between spaces. Part of a new commission by British sculptor Phyllida Barlow, they reflect both the dark wooden beams of the gallery ceiling and the sloping areas of the uneven floor. Both barrier-like and ramp-like, they recall architectures that direct, guide or impede movement. Above, two suspended objects formed from sawn-off drainpipes and 2x2s keep watch over the scene, resembling mutilated security cameras. On the wall hangs a semi-formed balcony that appears half-finished, formed of raw wood and a few scrapings of plaster. Something like an attic that has been turned inside out, the unfinished, rough, unpalatable parts of a house have been brought unwillingly outside.
The balcony is set at about shoulder height, and is apparently upside-down; one can duck underneath and look up at the covering, a tarpaulin stuffed with polystyrene-like insulation. The balcony is covered by the tarpaulin as if something inside were being protected from the elements, yet inside is simply vertical space. The sense of protectiveness the structure gives is tempered with a feeling of insecurity. One’s lower body is exposed, while the room is concealed - the opposite conditions to those of physical safety. Shelter is provisional, unfinished. The spaces created by these objects do not invite the viewer to settle, but rather keep people in motion, poised on the point of rest.
These sculptures are deeply engaged with landscape. ‘Bluff’ calls to mind the sea, positioning these silent barriers as steep cliffs leading to the ocean. The blue tarpaulin around the balcony is bound with red tape, reminiscent of a sky, a sunset. Barlow has described her sculptures as “bad copies’ of things, physical or emotional, that she has had a relationship with, and these are crudely moulded tributes to the imperfection of the natural landscape, formed from the roughest of materials. Wooden pallets, chicken wire, cement, polystyrene, card, plaster and industrial paint go into the making of these structures, their imperfections integral to the final form.
The main installation is complemented by a series of drawings and paintings in the project space. A square of 25 images forms main wall. In these sketches can be traced the development of the sculptural forms, the shape of the camera-objects evolving. The palette of browns and pinks give an impression of stained materiality that is echoed by the tar-like unfinished appearance of the main sculptures.
It is usual for Barlow to dismantle her sculptures after each show and reuse the materials in other works. Like a seaside landscape, her work is subject to erosion. Her materials are affected by the changes imposed by time, disintegration and the breaking down of form; they are imperfect and changeable as as landscape affected by weather. The sharp, artificial line of the red tape is perhaps a suggestion, a ‘bad copy’, of that perfection in nature which emerges like a sunset, suddenly, without warning and only for an instant, out of the mutable imperfection of the world.
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