Sculptor Phyllida Barlow on uncompromising art

Phyllida Barlow at the Fruitmarket Gallery. Picture: Neil Hanna
Phyllida Barlow at the Fruitmarket Gallery. Picture: Neil Hanna
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REGULAR visitors to the Fruitmarket Gallery will hardly recognise it during Phylida Barlow’s Edinburgh Art Festival show. Susan Mansfield meets the artist who delights in imperfections and who found fame in her 60s

The upper floor of the Fruitmarket Gallery has never looked like this. A ramshackle building seems to have been deposited through the roof made of sheets of hardboard and polystyrene blocks, covered with rough plaster and splodges of paint. It might be a squatter camp, but one determinedly closed to visitors. While you can walk right round its wonky circumference, you can’t see inside.

There shouldn’t be almost a sense of moral obligation that each gender has got to make or use aesthetics in a certain way”

Phyllida Barlow

The architect of all this, artist Phyllida Barlow, dressed in a paint-spattered trousers and shirt, pads around it to where three of the installation team are hard at work. “Well done, that’s fantastic!” she says, examining their labours. “If we could have a vertical column to blindside this corner. Yes, green, and the fact that it’s slightly wonky is good. Let’s just ram that on. And then a long one, horizontally, exactly where Rupert’s elbow is…”

The team of nine – four from the gallery and five from her own studio in London – have evolved their own Barlowesque way of communicating. She says: “I think the primary language is: ‘can we try that? Yes, about a metre long. Higher… lower… further across. A short length of wood… a long length of wood. Did you mean this? No, try it the other way round.’ What somebody might be used to is an artist saying: ‘I want it to be exactly 200cm long’.”

Building Barlow’s work is a delicious mix of precision and improvisation. Yes, there is planning, and drawing, and model-building. But the creation of the work in the space is still “performative”, just as the finished pieces are a kind of “choreography” in which the moving players are the audience themselves. The Fruitmarket is buzzing with the building, plastering, and painting; a crazy, grand-scale act of DIY.

The lower gallery is full too, of sections of wall and sculpture which will be positioned “as if the building has dropped its goods into this floor below”. I’ve never seen the place so full, I say. “That’s what everybody keeps on saying. I find it slightly alarming because it makes me think… for me, sculpture is this very problematic, histrionic art form which makes these rather uncompromising demands on spaces. It doesn’t just come in a neat little box.”

Certainly, Barlow’s don’t. This exhibition took five lorries, which might be a Fruitmarket record. She works on a grand scale in throwaway materials: cardboard, concrete, chipboard, plaster. Yet, despite its scale, her work has a joyfully homespun quality, things teeter and hang, there are splodges and blobs. It’s all deliberately unprecious, provisional, rough around the edges, yet things add up to something much more than the sum of their parts. They aspire and collapse at the same time, a cock-eyed knowing challenge to the tradition of sculpture that likes things big, grand, immaculately finished, and (let’s face it) overwhelmingly male.

“There’s a certain aspect of perfection that I’m just not interested in, and a certain aspect of success that I’m not interested in at all. I don’t think one has to look at art and necessarily be too concerned as to whether it’s good or bad, I think it’s the fascination for me that’s the interesting thing: why does somebody do that, what were they hoping for? That’s a creative energy in its own right, even if the results may be disappointing.”

At 71, Barlow is in the unusual position of being recently “discovered” as an artist. After a lifetime of work as a sculptor, and of teaching at the Slade, where her students included Rachel Whiteread, Martin Creed, Tacita Dean and Douglas Gordon, she found herself having, in her mid-60s, a breakthrough show at the Serpentine (with Nairy Baghramian) being taken on by prestigious London gallery Hauser & Wirth, and starting to enjoy an international career.

Talking to her, one becomes aware of a woman who has been fortunate enough to reach the height of her creative powers at a time when the art world has decided to recognise her. In a sector where the emphasis is all too often on the young, she is a vigorous, thoughtful presence, not falsely modest, but entirely without arrogance. Of the chance to make entirely new work for the Fruitmarket this summer as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival, she says: “I never thought in a million years [I’d be invited to have a show here]. The Fruitmarket has such a great history of exhibitions.”

Barlow grew up in London, her father was a psychiatrist, her mother a writer. They encouraged her to do exactly what she wanted. When she went to Chelsea College of Art in the early 1960s, she’s not sure whether she was more appalled at the fact that the welding room was off-limits to women, or that some of the female students were attending in secret, because of their parents disapproval. “There were things which were quite extraordinary, I look back on them with some kind of horror. But if you’re just not going to be put off, if it’s part of your character…”

She makes a clear distinction between “the huge necessity for social reform in terms of women’s rights”, and any attempt to categorise scuplture in terms of gender. “There are languages which to me seem very universal. There’s a wonderful sense that maybe the sexuality of an object, or the sensuality of an object, is a language that men and women can share and even find the same formal eroticism, whether it’s a hole in a sculpture or a phallocentric monument. There shouldn’t be almost a sense of moral obligation that each gender has got to make or use aesthetics in a certain way.”

Art school – at Chelsea, then the Slade – was a process of “confronting things that you really can’t do, and finding a way round that…” Carving, for example, confounded her. “The idea of taking away… I’m an adder-onner. Clay combines both, you can remove and add, you can destroy, it was the most liberating material to use. And then that became very translatable into materials which could be crushed or pulled or pushed or tied together.”

At art school, she met her husband, painter Fabian Peake, with whom she had five children. They shared childcare duties so that both could continue to make art. “There can be a sense of trying to juggle two positions and failing at both,” she laughs softly. “I think what gets written out of the whole debate about how you try and combine being a mother with something that is outside of motherhood is that it’s very conflicted, not because of the time but emotionally. You become torn between two utterly conflicting activities, both intensely creative, but they demand totally different aspects of creativity. The art can accommodate all sorts of emotional extremes of love and rage and violence and gentleness, but with children it’s utterly about them. One is about exposing a tremendous vulnerability, the other is about trying to offer immense security and love.”

In their sixties, she and Peake were about to sell their home to support their continuing work as artists when Barlow suddenly found her career in the ascendency. She says that the art world is increasingly recognising those “under the radar”, that the lineage of Western art – “the bumps and idiosyncrasies” – is being re-examined. Does she wish it had happened when she was younger? “I don’t think I would have known what to do with it,” she smiles. “I think I would have been absolutely nonplussed. I think this way of looking at things, where the artists see the exhibition and the gallery as an affirmation of their role as artists began in the 1980s or 1990s. We came from a generation where the affirmation was more in the act of making.

“What I think is wonderful is that I’m old enough that my ambitions aren’t about the gallery, they’re more to do with: can the work continue to be challenging to me? Can I continue to surprise in some way? It seems like an unfinished adventure.”

Phyllida Barlow: Set is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, until 18 October