Phyllida Barlow’s sculptural wonderland reigns supreme at the Royal Academy

2 March 2019

9:00 AM

2 March 2019

9:00 AM

‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ If there’s an exception to prove Shaw’s rule, it’s Phyllida Barlow. The 40 years the sculptor spent teaching at the Slade, where her pupils included Rachel Whiteread, have not only left her creative energies intact, but completely failed to keep a lid on them. After turning Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries into a cross between a lumberyard and an enchanted forest in 2014, then filling the British Pavilion to bursting point at the 2017 Venice Biennale, the septuagenarian who can conjure a sculptural wonderland from the contents of your local branch of Travis Perkins has been let loose on the Royal Academy’s Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries.

Unusually for Barlow, it’s not a jungle in there. For her new show in this airy suite of galleries renovated by David Chipperfield, she has cleaned up her act. The effect is sparser and less overwhelming, but none the less joyous for that. Along with her usual mix of workaday materials — timber, concrete, steel, plaster and polystyrene — she has burst out into brightly coloured fabrics. In the first room of this show, titled cul-de-sac, a huddle of canvas drapes roughly coated in glowing oranges, greens and yellows — ‘Do the paint like you’re cleaning windows,’ she tells her assistants — greets you with an infusion of Indian colour. Instead of the usual jumble, there’s a sequence to this exhibition: the second room feels more classical in mood with its monumental concrete column and wonky stack of pallets carved into the semicircular form of an auditorium, while the third is a Golgotha of white crosses and scaffolds supporting huge rectangular blocks on rickety, bandaged legs: part cathedral, part condemned adventure playground.

These are just my impressions, of course. There are no ‘subjects’ in Barlow’s work; she simply wants her ‘sculptures to breathe in the space’ and to make that happen she is constantly holding her breath. It’s pure brinkmanship: ‘My relationship with making sculpture has to be adventurous, on the edge of being beyond my control,’ she explains in a film at the entrance. You walk under her scaffolds at your peril, praying those overhanging blocks aren’t made of concrete. You have to look where you’re going in a Barlow exhibition, but that, according to her, is what sculpture’s about.

What was sculpture about according to Franz West? From the Austrian artist’s first posthumous retrospective at Tate Modern, it’s hard to tell. At first glance his monumental forms dotted around the terrace outside the Blavatnik Building seem similar to Barlow’s: big, bold, lo-tech and lumpen, but more pat. Made of patched aluminium panels lacquered in a range of pyjama pastels, they’re all shaped like phalluses, turds or ringwursts tied in knots.

West did not teach and was initially self-taught. An early film of 1969 shows him lounging at a café table with a Burt Reynolds moustache, a self-consciously detached gaze and a lazy cigarette. Before enrolling in the Vienna Academy in 1977 at the age of 30, he was a drifter on the verges of the Vienna art scene: a drinker, a doper, the classic art-world outsider who wants in. And in he got, rising to represent his country at the 1990 Venice Biennale.

His breakthrough works were his portable Passstücke, hand-held plaster sculptures, also vaguely schlong-shaped, which his friends were filmed waltzing around with. Four examples resembling club-footed lacrosse sticks are on offer for visitors to ‘interact with’ in the privacy of two white-curtained cubicles provided. They were intended as piss-takes of Viennese actionism, but does it still matter? Piss-takes, like styles of tache, are time-sensitive. And most of the ‘legitimate sculptures’ West moved on to making in the 1980s — some incorporating bottles he had just drained of alcohol — would look better through the bottom of a glass.

There’s not much to look at here — I mean really look. I liked a drawing from 1981 of an exotic dancer performing for a bald-headed businessman, and a row of plaster ‘Lemur Heads’ (1992) suggesting a mini-Mount Rushmore in which all the presidents are goons and spooks. But the best things are the pieces of furniture — the welded metal chairs like bisected barbecues and the love seats, especially the stretch model made for reclining: West, we are told, needed to lie down a lot.

British audiences will, I suspect, be less interested in his philosophical library, from which we’re invited to take down volumes, or his mythological references. His aesthetic may be punk, but his art is pretentious. Barlow carries no mythological baggage, she’s too busy lugging heavy stuff about. And really, what’s with all the knob jokes? On the comment board at the exit from West’s show, someone has written: ‘So very male.’

At Tate Modern, where women artists are now in the ascendant, West is posthumously keeping the male end up. Over at the Royal Academy, Barlow reigns supreme.

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