Contemporary art Exhibitions Fairs USA

The artist who transforms the detritus of everyday life

Phyllida Barlow is a British artist who is embracing the message of modern America

Phyllida Barlow's TIP, 2013. Photo: © Phyllida Barlow and Hauser & Wirth

Phyllida Barlow’s growing presence on the US art scene was dramatically reflected this autumn in her sculpture TIP, 2013, outside the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. A 40m-long forest of timber stilts, wire mesh, cement, spray paint and fluorescent ribbons, it welcomes, or perhaps assaults, visitors to this year’s Carnegie International (until 16 March 2014)—an exuberant challenge to the sombre sculptures by Richard Serra and Henry Moore nearby.

Barlow has now arrived in Miami with “HOARD”, a typically bustling sculptural installation at the Norton Museum of Art (until 23 February 2014). For many years, she has been translating the mess of urban life into strange and awkward sculptures that often overwhelm or disrupt the exhibition space. “Some of this almost generic information that comes off the street is about upheaval and disintegration and the regeneration of material stuff in our world, and it has an inherent sculptural language that I feel passionate about, whether it’s a broken paving slab or a fallen tree,” she says. Increasingly, there is a political aspect to her barriers and obstacles; a reflection on the “ready-made controls and ready-made authoritarian decisions in our lives”.

Barlow’s process is often largely improvised. With TIP, she “didn’t know what the work was going to be” before she began to install it. She admits that there is a risk in working this way, “but even though I dread it, it’s a way that I can keep something alive to the bitter end”. Barlow wants to make work that is “on the edge of knowing what it is and what it could be or might be”, she says. “There’s a tradition of that, through Arte Povera, Giacometti, Rodin; even in some of Michelangelo’s blurred figures emerging from the stone. It’s a wonderful aspect of sculpture, which defies the monumental and defies the didacticism of something being a finished work. Jeff Koons is a magnificent example of somebody whose work absolutely has complete resolution. But [his works] operate more as pictorial events for me than sculptural events.”

One of the key sculptures in the exhibition—Untitled: 11 Columns; standing, fallen, broken, 2011, a cluster of huge, bulky cylinders—is emblematic of this anti-Koons position. “It’s quite a hideous, awkward, unattractive piece, actually,” Barlow says, with a laugh. She first made it for the Haus der Kunst in Munich. “It will be very strange bringing it from a northern city with a huge reputation and significance to the balmy, sun-soaked shores of Florida. It’s like stroking the hair of an animal backwards—it doesn’t quite work, but that fascinates me.” Alongside it are various new and repurposed works. “It really is a hoard of stuff, hence the title of the show,” she says.

Barlow turns 70 next year, but her work, with its constant sense of experimentation and discovery, radiates the energy of much younger artists. “This sort of quest for the work always seems elusive,” she says. “There’s always that peculiar thing—‘can I actually do this?’ It never settles.”

• Phyllida Barlow: HOARD, Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S Olive Avenue, West Palm Beach (until 23 February 2014). Opening hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday: 10am-5pm; Thursday: 10am-9pm; Sunday 11am-5pm. Website: www.norton.org

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