Blackened, painted-out surveillance cameras in dangling clumps like coal clouds meet the visitor in the opening passages of ‘set’, the current Fruitmarket Gallery exhibition by London-based and Newcastle-born artist Phyllida Barlow. These objects, spaced across the gallery’s frontage, bookshop and café, signal a new world inside; A world which seeks to ‘turn the gallery, and our experience of it, upside down.’
The Fruitmarket Gallery’s unique architectural stacking - one gallery sitting on top of another - is a central concern to Barlow’s project here, as is an audience’s self-awareness, their seeing and conflicting experiences in spaces brought together as a workshop, studio, exhibition and dramatically changing personality. Painted wooden platforms and backdrops hold objects with spattered grey clay and concrete. Plywood surfaces are painted in powdery washes of pink, orange and yellow with dashes of fluorescent aerosol spray. Outside becomes inside as marks more commonly found on asphalt for road works - signifying repaired cables, potholes and gas lines - are recruited into her aesthetic. Vibrantly incompatible, they evidence functions and operations, surfaces and cladding hiding dirty internal mechanisms.
Barlow’s sculptures coalesce as performative actions realised in material form: prop and propped, balancing and collapsing, folded for unfolding, solid for dropping. She encourages the sculptures to announce their material qualities: porous, smooth, textured, brittle and mottled. Their densities: floating, compressed, heavy or lightweight. She propels the exhibition through shifts in scale from monumental heights to invisible particles. This show has airborne detritus that can be felt in your lungs.
Some of the work in the lower gallery has the qualities of an earthquake or natural disaster, a sensibility seen in some of the violent and invasive work of the German artist Felix Schramm. Questions on the subjects of material abrasion, control and anarchy bring to mind the work of Isa Genzken and Rachel Harrison, and draw parallels to the exhibition ‘the Unmonumental’ held at the New Museum in New York in 2007. Meanwhile, Barlow’s investigations of immersive experiences on an industrial scale are reminiscent of the late US artist Jason Rhoades, the focus of a recent touring retrospective seen at BALTIC in Gateshead.
A room-sized obstacle quarantines the first-floor gallery. The audience is shunted to its side-lines and left to navigate the gallery around a narrow walkway, overwhelmed by this mutant shelter/barricade/disguised form. Its internal spaces, made of haphazard constructed bolsters and panels, are only viewable at a specific angle. Three objects appearing as trees shorn of their branches rest on the gallery walls, they seem to have escaped from the room’s sculpture-as-enclosure. The object from the first floor, despite its massive scale, is an apprehensive work, which Barlow describes as ‘silencing the space’ and contrasts to the downstairs gallery’s effervescence and unapologetically confident theatricality.
Objects are moved into and out of abstraction. A part of a sport stadium bleacher and domestic clothes drying horses appear but are quickly consumed back into what Barlow describes as the ‘drama of objects’, into the ‘settlement and the satisfaction of idle arrangements’. She discusses her practice in the same terms as her description of an illegal dump close to her London studio where ‘the contents of entire flats’ can often be found deposited.
The work on show is undisciplined, by that I mean not ‘disciplined’ by controlling terminology that sets artists apart according to age, gender, money and status, annotations on career trajectory or importance. Liberated from these constrictive categorisations, ‘set’ takes risks in its display and ambitions. It is reckless and restless, an extension of Barlow’s mind and the enquiries she has made into sculpture, its properties and potential, drawn from over five decades of practice.