“cul-de-sac,” Phyllida Barlow’s current show at the Royal Academy (on view through June 23), features new work from the last year, presented in three interconnected spaces. The connotations of the exhibition title, which invokes entrapment and disorientation, are intensified by the fact that the gallery exit is blocked. Viewers are therefore forced to retrace their steps back to the beginning, which allows for a fuller comprehension of the sculptures’ physical properties as seen from different vantage points en route. Many of Barlow’s structures soar well beyond human height, making contact with the lofty ceilings—for her, the exhibition space always acts as a protagonist in the overall creation.
untitled: canvasracks, in the first room, consists of tall poles gaily draped with brightly colored cotton canvas and attached to heavy, supportive plinths. Ceremonial in appearance, they offer a welcoming familiarity that is foiled by the subsequent structures, which grow markedly more somber in tone. Barlow represented Britain at the 2017 Venice Biennale, arguably devising the most provocative show of her career. By comparison, “cul-de-sac” offers greater restraint, emphasizing the singularity of each sculpture rather than besieging the space with objects and color. With the exception of untitled: canvasracks, these works veer toward the monochrome; indeed, within the same space, untitled: lintelshadow acts as a contrasting companion—gray, lean, and unyielding.
untitled: shadowplatform, the focus of the second room, is unashamedly theatrical. Squat and tilted at a beguiling angle, it is endowed with almost anthropomorphic qualities. This work is juxtaposed with untitled: barrel, a colossal pillar, weighty and ancient in its manifestation, yet very much a fake object striving to become something else. In “cul-de-sac,” Barlow conjures a dystopian suburbia, drawing inspiration from the films of David Lynch, who represents suburbia as a false concept, a place where orderly appearances hide less salubrious activities lurking behind closed doors. Barlow, instead of concealing, takes pleasure in exposing the chaos while allowing multiple scenarios to exist simultaneously.
Absurdity features prominently in her work, and she has spoken of her interest in the films of Buster Keaton, whose hapless antics, delivered with deadpan resolve, guarantee hilarity. Barlow’s impossible, gravity-defying sculptures—such as untitled: scimtripod in the third room—entice viewers into thrillingly close proximity, even though they appear on the point of collapse. Meanwhile, small, fist-like forms—untitled: burrow, untitled: crease, untitled: cutter, and untitled: crush—skim unnervingly just overhead. Barlow is a master of such flirtations with the precarious; over the years, she has developed a subtle means of intervention that holds materials in place while still allowing the flexibility necessary for her working methods. The gesture, so important in her structures, can be retained because the fixture is part of the creative process. In this room, the sculptures are juxtaposed in a truly performative way, as if masquerading as a clandestine troupe of players engaged in a mutinous subplot.
As “cul-de-sac” demonstrates, Barlow’s skill in courting accident and chance remains unsurpassed. While her materials—plaster, cement, steel, wire mesh, plywood, timber, and fabric—are rooted in the sculptural canon, her methods of deployment are freed from any past constraints. Her drive to create sculpture through intuition, not logic, can be seen to mirror Dada’s subversive examination of tradition, order, and coherence; she also captures the absurdist view in which humanity, controlled by unsympathetic external forces, is obliged to undertake unremittingly repetitive tasks, much like Buster Keaton assembling a skew-whiff, build-it-yourself house in One Week. Barlow’s spectacular parting shot, untitled: post, seems to brandish an axe. Though its exact message remains inconclusive, untitled: post, whether Grim Reaper or savior, proffers a distinctly apocalyptic vision of the future.