Phyllida Barlow: tilt, the British sculptor’s new show at Hauser & Wirth’s Chelsea outpost, arrives like a thunderclap: riotous, ravaged, and throbbing to the beat of our psychotic moment.
This is Barlow’s first solo in New York since 2012, when she made her US museum debut with siege, an installation filling the fourth floor of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, followed at the end of the same year by …later at Hauser & Wirth’s Upper East Side townhouse.
If you were lucky enough to have seen siege, with its seven blunt, hulking sculptures crowding the museum’s already cramped floorspace, you’ll find tilt an entirely different experience: open, airy, and very, very busy.
Everything is tilted, off-kilter, askew — whether it’s a planar construction of repurposed plywood, a blue slab of crushed cardboard, or a hollowed-out lump of bronze. All 28 of these sculptures — which are untitled but, following Barlow’s custom, embellished with subtitles and the dates of their making, typed out in lowercase — were completed this year. To suggest that the artist, at 74, has been on a tear is an understatement, and she pulls us into her creative rush.
It’s an exhaustive selection, but unlike other overpopulated shows currently taking up space in New York’s mega-galleries (specifically Gagosian’s assembly-line runs of Mark Grotjahn and Richard Prince), it is neither repetitive nor superfluous. Motifs may reappear, but when they do, they accentuate the meanings coursing through the installation as a whole. The exhibition’s excesses bespeak a superabundance of ideas.
One of the highlights of the New Museum’s siege was the cluster of massive arches erected directly outside the elevator doors; as the doors slid open, the looming thicket all but pushed you back inside.
The current show revisits those forms on a much reduced scale: “untitled: boundfence; 2018” (2018), like its predecessor, stations itself at the exhibition’s entrance, but leaves the belligerence behind. Rather, more than a dozen human-scale arches mingle in front of the gallery windows, seemingly unmindful of your presence, or willfully ignoring it.
Their placement suggests, as indicated in the subtitle, a screen separating the outside world from the quasi-eponymous “untitled: tilt(lintel); 2018” (2018), one of the largest of the show’s very large works. This imposing structure takes the form of an open-frame steel gateway flaring upward, while an attached cement barrier spreads across the floor like a cast shadow.
The cement section stands a couple of inches off the floor at its juncture with the steel frame, and rises to a couple of feet at its highest, farthest point, a low-slung blockade suggesting a checkpoint in a combat zone. That this sculpture is the most polished, or, put another way, the least organic in the exhibition is telling. Its steel-and-cement construction, skewed angles, and aggressive stance feel like a deliberate invocation of Brutalist architecture and the raw power it personifies. Its forward pitch seems to push the more raffish, improvisational works into the corners and up the walls, where they heave, bristle, and regroup.
It’s hard not to think of these fabrications as living things; even though they’re far removed from anything resembling fauna or flora, they feel rife with heads, teeth, legs, and orifices of every stripe. Many sit atop steel pedestals that are as much works of art, à la Brancusi, as they are.
Many of the bases are irregularly stacked cubes (evoking, in a funny way, the architecture of the New Museum), with some dictating the terms of our interaction with the sculptures they hold. Most are at eye level, but there are a number of wedge-shaped shelves mounted high on the walls, putting the art out of reach. There’s also a floor-based pedestal that lifts its slanted, two-legged, stool-like sculpture, “untitled: female (2); 2018” (2018), nearly 10 feet in the air. Several pieces are mounted directly on the walls, at a similar height and to an equally alienated effect.
The dispersal of the sculptures around the room at first feels unfocused, even chaotic, thanks to their swings in size, shape, and materials — encrusted swells; painted planes; bundled slats; woven fabric — but the longer you take them in, the more they settle into correspondences across clear sight lines, most notably with four sculptures that represent large and small versions of two distinctive motifs.
The convulsed, predatory “untitled: pinkspree; 2018” (2018), an eight-and-a-half-foot-tall unholy marriage of pink-on-black triangles and pentagons, seems to lurch forward, jaws open, from a far corner, while its vulnerable, satchel-sized variation, “untitled: spree (green); 2018” (2018), calls out its aggression from the other side of the room.
Likewise, “untitled: sign; 2018” (2018), an enormous broken pentagon perched on a diagonal length of timber attached to a steel base, mirrors the shape and movement of the comparatively tiny “untitled: offcut (green sign); 2018” (2018), singling it out from a cluster of similarly sized sculptures like a melody suddenly springing from a mesh of counterpoint.
It should be noted that Barlow, who has made a significant body of works on paper, is among the most gifted colorists around, and a sculpture like “untitled: hung4; 2018” (2018), with its plywood sheets hanging from the ceiling, is remarkable by dint of its painting alone.
Ironically, Barlow made 2012’s siege, with its dark, oppressive imagery, during what, in retrospect, seem like the best of times, the run-up to Obama’s re-election. But here, as both the US and the artist’s native UK skid irredeemably off the rails, she manages to land an emotional backflip: her forms are ugly, crude, and savage, but executed with such a wealth of wisdom and experience that, as we allow ourselves to sink into them, we can’t help but feel exalted. Another paradox to cling to as we stumble ahead.
Phyllida Barlow: tilt continues at Hauser & Wirth (548 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 22.
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