In Phyllida Barlow’s untitled: signs (all works 2010), copies of real estate ‘for sale’ signs are quickly, almost haplessly slapped together. The work’s construction is characterized mainly by speed and is perhaps based on a vague recollection that’s not necessarily just visual: surfaces are a grimy blend of thick paint drips and smeared cement; older paint layers peek out from underneath the brutal Spackle. The signs’ diptych-like plywood boards are cut so that their dimensions feel vaguely askew, either oversized or otherwise distorted. As a final insult, they are a muddy grey – not exactly eye-catching or bold advertising. Hanging together in a cluster of five on a white gallery wall, they are a timid and bungling apology for what they used to sell. These signs are retired or perhaps failed, parodies of their former purpose.
For her exhibition, titled ‘Street’, Barlow has continued her practice of picking out objects from the urban landscape, then recreating them, mostly by abstracting and depriving them of their original contexts. In BAWAG’s long gallery space, seven new sculptures resembling found, urban objects become obstacles to circle around and navigate – like a parkour challenge, but one rather more philosophical than physical.
Aside from for-sale signs, there are fraying banners in gleeful golds and fuschias (untitled: banners); a fallen (or perhaps reclining) tower winks to monumentality, its hollow tube of polystyrene posing as solid concrete (untitled: broken column); a ladder (or stairs, a bookshelf, or terraced housing) is also out-sized, daubed in a frightful pink (untitled: shelf structured). Taken together, these hint at disintegration, anxiety, even class struggle. The only solid-coloured object in the show is untitled: heap 4, a barricade in gleaming black, which looks alive. These objects are pawns in our streetscapes, secondary accessories transformed into protagonists. They assume a tragicomic pose that calls the bluff of any easy interpretations. Untitled: parapet, for example, is a grotesquely bulbous balcony protruding from the wall – slightly Disney-esque, like a blinking red nose. Its presence as an autonomous sculptural object feels awkward, both for its way of directing our attention to things less than worthwhile, as well as calling our attention to just how little attention we actually do pay to these objects in our everyday surroundings. Barlow says she chose the balcony based on its resemblance to Vienna’s numerous flakturm, the gargantuan yet mostly ignored two-metre-thick air raid shelters built during World War II.
As the rough balcony demonstrates, it’s through the erasure of details that Barlow emphasizes objects’ own, hidden intelligence. By stripping them of text, specific scale and materiality as well as the context of the street, Barlow makes these objects almost unrecognizable, as their original functions and contexts become hard to place. But if these missing details enable their pose, they also create a sense of incompleteness and vulnerability: these objects cannot exist on their own. The artist creates a negative space, leaving us to wonder: what’s for sale? Where does the detour take us? Is this neighbourhood on the verge of collapse?
Barlow’s installation provokes further speculation about how we would read the city or street if it were suddenly devoid of these signifiers. When it comes to estate agents’ signs and buildings, which is the host and which is the parasite? What if we were to perceive the urban environment merely through its formal presence or sculptural qualities? And why do so many of these objects seem unconsciously anthropomorphic? It’s through decontextualization and abstraction that Barlow’s objects become generic: not belonging to any city or street, but instead gaining a direct and obvious archetypal quality. The gallery becomes a sterile, archaeological site of autonomous, unknowable objects from a standard cityscape, and they function like machining jigs – keys controlling the tools in a manufacturing process – but in this case, the regulation and production of urban life.
When Barlow, the long-time and now retired teacher at the Slade School of Art in London (where her students included Rachel Whiteread and Douglas Gordon), first started showing in a gallery, she would throw her sculptures away or recycle them into new works, post-exhibition – not unlike what might happen to them in the street. As is the case here, the actual objects themselves also prove to be irrelevant; what we are left with is the space of our imaginations, associations and past negotiations.