In conjuring up the title for “Hurly-burly” (on view through March 4, 2023), Phyllida Barlow, Rachel Whiteread, and Alison Wilding have summoned Shakespeare’s “three weird sisters” as they conspire during the stormy opening scene of Macbeth: “When shall we three meet again? / In thunder, lightning or in rain? / When the hurly-burly’s done, / When the battle’s lost and won, / That will be ere the set of sun.” Karsten Schubert, Wilding’s late gallerist, affectionately dubbed the trio of English artists “the three witches,” and this exhibition fittingly recalls the tumultuous “hurly-burly” they navigated during what was, back in the day, a particularly capricious and fickle male-dominated art world.
The brew that Barlow, Whiteread, and Wilding have cooked up at Gagosian celebrates their close and supportive 40-year friendship with four to six works by each artist—comparatively modest works, given the large-scale sculptures and installations for which they are individually so well known. They did not discuss their submissions beforehand, yet striking synergies and divergences come to life in the gallery, where each sculpture receives generous breathing space in which to say its piece.
The first room provides an introduction through three divergent works, varied in materials and scale. Whiteread’s Untitled (Crease) (2021–22) consists of a dried tree set on a metal roof panel and a stack of wrapped wooden slats, all painted stark white. Though there is no narrative provided beyond the visual dialogue connecting these objects, references to hurricanes and the detritus of war come to mind—lives once lived, now petrified but sanctified. If Whiteread gives any clues at all, they lie in her past references to the photo of Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818–19) that she keeps in her studio.
Though Wilding also plays with natural and industrial materials, her unexpected juxtapositions can be unsettling, as in the small abstract wall piece Still Untitled (2001). This oak and silver-plated copper work consists of a thin slice of metal that echoes the shape of the dense Brancusi-like oak head to which it is attached. The metal shield both protects and constrains the form, but its sharp edge grazing a human-like face augers something violent or forbidding.
Barlow’s hollow (2022), a non-objective sculpture made from plywood cutouts, steel, and foam, is configured into an arced stack of deceptively lightweight sheets. Painted white with variegated tonalities of warm pinks and neutral grays, it suggests an elegant, enormous mass of ephemeral fluff about to take flight.
Whiteread studied and worked with Wilding and Barlow, and their ongoing friendship suggest lots of give and take. It would be terrific to hear how they have influenced one another, directly, by osmosis—or not. In lieu of such a conversation, the strategic placement of their works fills in many blanks because, personal interactions aside, their individual bodies of work parallel post-Modernism’s diversions from mid-20th-century Minimalism.
All three artists, like many others of their era, prioritize the art object over its implied narrative. They revel in the freedom to use and explore untraditional materials in unexpected formats, and they consider the exhibition space essential to establishing a relationship between the viewer and the work. These general practices unite the selections in “Hurly-burly” and enable vibrant three-way conversations to thread their way through the show. As an example, consider Whiteread’s Untitled (Plaster Torso) (1993), a seminal work that foreshadows her monumental cast constructions. She translates an ordinary household item—a hot water bottle—into a human form by shaping and then casting it to retain a soft fleshiness, likening the resulting mold to the delicate torso of a baby. The work resonates with an early piece by Barlow, also titled TORSO (1986–89). Reversing Whiteread’s process, Barlow used a human form to create an inanimate object, wrapping Sellotape around her arm until it formed an irregular oval, which she then sealed with glass and polythene. The resulting jewel-like sculpture, as translucent and soft in appearance as an amber-hued jellyfish, conflates our sense of the organic and the manufactured as does the work by Whiteread.
Other works similarly reflect the artists’ choices of inexpensive, discarded material as the stuff of fine art. They waste nothing, a frugality that particularly reflects the personal histories of Wilding and Barlow, both of whom experienced the devastation and shortages following World War II. Wilding likens Dramonia (2022) to the armature of a racing car. It’s made from an assortment of manufactured parts: the base fashioned from a knotted black bronze coil, with two acrylic balls wedged between it and the upper layer, a ready-made steel laminate frame divided into corrugated box-like sections. The undulating coil humorously suggests a snake-like creature attempting to balance or transport the precarious object it supports. Barlow’s modernsculpture (2022), created for “Hurly-burly,” represents a forest of trees made from cheap re-purposed construction material. She says the inspiration came from a damaged artwork she saw in Kiev in 2012, but the installation, with its stylized tree-tops set atop slender steel legs, all dripping red and black paint, cries out to the blasted landscape of today’s Ukraine. And so, the hurly-burly is not yet done.