An image from Hurricane Katrina's aftermath lingers in Phyllida Barlow's imagination. It is that of a single tree amid the storm's debris and a storm's survivor who noted it as the mark of where his home once stood.
"'Home,' he said, not house," she explains. "Maybe it was insensitive of me, but it was deeply moving."
That observation, acute and solicitous, resonates in her work: grand scale, exuberant art, big and bigger objects that float or tower or lumber or sprawl. Fascinated with disarray and destruction's aftermath, she makes them of scrap and discard, flung about and pasted, worked and re-worked into frozen moments on the verge of collapse or with the suggestion of disaster past.
"Such a restless medium, sculpture," she says. "It doesn't know what it wants to be."
A native of London, Barlow has taught art there since the early '60s, numbering among her pupils major talents like Tacita Dean, Rachel Whiteread and Douglas (24 Hour Psycho) Gordon. Seven years ago, she retired from teaching to focus on her own work.
The eleven floor-to-ceiling pillars of an untitled piece guard the entrance to her Norton show, HOARD, standing fully thirty feet to the ceiling or fallen and broken like the remains of some ancient temple. Not what they seem at first, their apparent weight stems from concrete coating over polystyrene and plastic, a sly jibe at the pretension of sheer mass.
High on a wall to the pillars' side is a massive tangle of brightly colored fabric and paper rope, a fabulous, squirming rainbow. Across the room stands a construction untitled (but referred to as "brokenupturnedhouse"); the most direct reference to Barlow's Katrina vision, it is a tilted jumble of plywood and timber, two massive slabs of faux-stone thrust through it, destroyed but standing, tense on the verge of collapse.
Other wry tensions mark the show's adjoining room, where a group of four meteorite-like objects hang suspended from the ceiling, defying their (merely apparent) weight, while across the room a tube fit for a municipal water main floats above a rickety stage of salvaged timber, where any audience would sit at their peril. ("There is a psychological pressure to a hanging object," Barlow says.)
Barlow's grandest gesture fills the show's third and last room, where an untitled piece (below) from which the show takes its name sits like a sea of upheaval.
Reassembled from the remains of two earlier installations, destroyed and rebuilt into a precariously balanced field of worn timber, plastic tape and construction debris, the "hoard" makes a glorious mess, tempting viewers to trample through it, like a child with a heap of dead leaves on a lawn.
Barlow shared with us some formative experiences: as a young girl, being taken by her parents to see the aftermath of Luftwaffe attacks on English cities; later in life, walking past the site of an IRA bomb attack in central London and being struck by the gorgeous scatter of broken glass everywhere, "like fallen snow." She speaks of "the language of catastrophe" and the "aesthetics of disruption," and appears drawn to apologize for finding beauty in disaster's wake. But these are apocalyptic times, and what Barlow creates is redemptive.
We moderns live "with a horror of death," she says. "But the pursuit of beauty is unrelenting."
Phyllida Barlow: HOARD, December 3, 2013 - February 23, 2014, Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S Olive Ave, West Palm Beach. Curator's Conversation on Phyllida Barlow: HOARD takes place 6:30 p.m., on Dec. 12, Led by Cheryl Brutvan, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Contemporary Art. Half Price admission on Thursdays. Visit norton.org.
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