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Sculptor Phyllida Barlow at the Tate

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Phyllida Barlow sculpture_Tate Britain_April 2014

Artist contradicts and questions power, creating dual identities through size and material.

Titled ‘dock’, very specifically with a lower-case d, the inspiration for Phyllida Barlow’s latest work came from the River Thames running outside the Tate Britain.

And what better place to showcase sculptures made out of refuse than the huge, empty, echoing hall of Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries?

The space of the hall and its grandiose building style of pillars and arches create an ideal backdrop for Barlow’s huge sculptures, made from scaffolding, staples, tape, cardboard, polystyrene, fabric scraps, bin bags and more.

She has a great sense of balance and space, filling the high-ceilinged hall with sculptures made entirely from materials more likely to be found in a dump, on a wharf or in a building site.

Viewed at various angles, the hall can appear to be filled with nonsensical piles of stuff.

It is only after walking into the middle of the hall and concentrating on a piece from a distance that viewers are able to see the symmetry and possible references each piece could be making.

One beautifully intricate piece is made entirely from skeletal wooden crates, rearing up reminiscent of the way a huge container ship’s prow looms over a dock, the full size and shape only appreciable from a distance, not from directly next to or underneath.

Barlow has often described her work as ‘anti-monumental’, a direct contrast between the size of her sculptures and the materials she uses to construct them.

She has also spoken about her love of the hidden aspects of sculpture, the supports and the undercladding, and she shows that through her use of fluorescent tape, staples and industrial straps.

dock is the 2014 Tate Britain Commission, an annual invitation that asks artists to respond to the Tate’s collection and history.

Barlow said her inspiration for dock came when she walked out of the Tate on to the riverbank and saw ‘this black, shiny coiling surface of water with quasi-industrial riverside stuff on the other side and… the boats and barges with big containers on them.’

‘I’m very excited by the opportunity to work in the Duveen Galleries,’ she said. ‘Considering a new body of work, I was very conscious of two particular contradictory aspects: the tomb-like interior galleries against the ever-present aspect of the river beyond.’

Born in 1944 in Newcastle upon Tyne, Barlow studied at the Chelsea College of Arts from 1960 to 1963 and then the Slade School of Fine Art from 1963 to 1966, where she focused on sculpture and later became Professor of Fine Art. She taught for more than 40 years.

Barlow has said that it was her professor at Slade, George Fullard, who introduced her to the possibility of using alternative materials in sculpture.

Her students included a number of future award-winners, including Rachel Whiteread, Douglas Gordon, Tacita Dean, Steven Pippin and Tomoko Takahashi.

She retired from teaching in 2009 in order to concentrate more on her own work.

There is an interesting parallel between Barlow’s sculpture and the traditional need for women to scavenge time from their all-consuming caring duties to create their own work.

In the 40 years that Barlow taught at art schools and raised five children, she created beauty out of scavenged items.

Her work is often huge in scale, yet made entirely out of tiny, broken and or found objects.

She has said that she is both attracted and repelled by the ‘heroic, macho thing’ of many of her artistic peers, a feeling that may be felt within her work.

In the Duveen Galleries, a pillar she made out of taped-together cardboard reaching nearly to the ceiling echoes the size, but not the strength, of the marble pillars that support the hall.

It is also interesting to note that Barlow is an older woman being recognised for her work in the latter half of her life.

Last year, the Tate Modern held the world’s first major museum exhibition of the work of Saloua Raouda Choucair, a 98 year-old Lebanese artist.

Is being recognised later in life, rather than posthumously, an improvement on previous eras when women artists were, at most, recognised as the muse for whichever male artist(s) they were involved with?

It would be great if this is part of a growing movement to better recognise the talents of women artists within their lifetime.

The all-male lists of the most expensive paintings and sculptures and wealthiest artists indicate how much work is needed to help women artists achieve an equal level of success.

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