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What The Heck? Phyllida Barlow: Cul-de-sac @ Royal Academy of Arts


Phyllida Barlow: Cul-de-sac

What The Heck? π/∞ ★★★☾☾!


Royal Academy of Arts, London (More specifically the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries & Burlington Gardens) 23 February 2019 – 23 June 2019. Art works by Phyllida Barlow.

I tend to dodge a lot of shows at the Royal Academy, not because I hate it, but due to the grandesque and heavy ESTABLISHMENT vibes, it is probably a rather misplaced and ignorant gut reaction, but it still exists... Anyway, Phyllida Barlow would be showing some works, I placed my problems with authority aside and went along.


Walking amongst the Gabrielle and Jungels-Winkler space, the works shouted out in a janky, iffy and clumsy way. Emitting just enough of that sweet ‘something’ to deliver a visual fix for the sickening extravagance that the space unnaturally commands. Barlow acknowledges the space and installs an effective counter argument, a clash of farty horns, a domination haven. It should probably go without saying that these works were of course intensely considered and highly designed, despite the precarious impression they gave. In a difficult to describe way, this fact was very evident, despite it being totally contrasting to the ever pressing iffyness of the structures.


I immediately started feeling very small, a feeling that I'm sure I share with all persons who walk amongst the titan works by Barlow, and around the RA for that matter… Though, this at first obvious message came with an unexpected attachment. I don’t know exactly which station my train of thought diverted too at this point, but a since forgotten memory popped in to my head. Childlikeness and treasure hunting came to mind.

Some Art That Made Me Remember What Was Behind My Second Washing Machine.


When I was a kid, in my first house – There was a drawer in the corner of the kitchen, at some point it became blocked and sealed, sat behind a replacement washing machine which was slightly more plump than it’s forefather, and so the corner drawer stayed shut for about 8 years or so.


It must have been an absurdly rainy day, because I decided to finally drag the machine out, and see what was in that drawer. What I found was a beautiful and ever interesting cave of random crap, a somehow important but not really useful array of objects. Amongst the rizlas and screwdrivers, there lay all kinds of key-chains, seashells, string, springs, elastic bands, coins, magnets, bolts, shoe laces etc. etc. I hate to attempt to put it in to some badly remembered list, it really belittles the feeling of discovering actual treasure. The objects were special, not because they were valuable but because they were interesting, in strange ways, the forms and variety of materials. When objects lose original purpose, they exist in a strange state of materiality. Physical property is their only lifeline keeping them away from the bin. It's that fun and famously farty stuff, "Objet Trouvé", or 'Found Object' if you can't be bothered to google translate it. Obviously Duchamp and that' had a fantastic go at it - but perhaps more subtly and dare I say more interestingly (in the context of extending this found object practice to NOW) Wentworth's series: 'Making Do and Getting By' bridges the gap from the physical materiality of found objects and the human void that they create, the presence left behind and the sort of, ghost of use.


I DIGRESS!, so anyway, the everything drawer! I got older and realised that my uncle Eddy had previously spent a lot of time at our house during my toddler years… It just so happened that Eddy was a hoarder.

His house was absolutely full to the brim, and believe me, I mean it… His obsessive habit of collecting and searching for ‘one day this might come in useful’ spilled across to our house. I expect he was subconsciously forced to select smaller items and trinkets that he could get away with keeping in a drawer in someone else’s place. Lucky for me, aged 13 being a subscriber of ‘Art Crazy!’ magazine, this drawer served as an almost unending resource for making and finding 20p’s, though it did eventually run rather dry a year or two later, leaving bits of stray tobacco, sweet rappers and ‘truly’ useless stuff behind. But the feeling I am left with and the way that I look back at this time is truly special. The act of interrogating objects for their most fundamental properties, just because of curiosity.


What?? Has this got anthing to do with Phylidda Barlow at the RA? Go to bed.

A rightfully asked question… Somehow this exhibition became a plunger on my ear, Uncle Eddy’s ‘everything’ drawer came back in to my mind, and I don’t think it would have done for some time (maybe ever) if I didn’t walk underneath Barlow’s work.

I think I can see something similar in the artist’s process, her decisions and obsessive behaviour for material, for object and selection is visually evident, I don’t necessarily understand where she gathers the motivation, or rather, sources the sense to make these decisions, but once they’re made, I can truly appreciate the result and I at least feel like I get it. There is a balance and weird conversation that the materials have with one another, a sort of ‘we are more than friends but we’re not really dating’ kind of thing. We have to keep things fun and enjoyable in this world of health and safety madness (I get it! but jeeeez), regulation and establishment heavy handidness can feel brutal, so the fun is important, to me. Being able to produce this effect to such a great extent whilst not cutting any corners on the build quality is a great achievement.

Something else which might be good enough to write down:

Substantiating my already great love for found objects and ‘iffy’ sort of bodge job aesthetics is always a great thing. It solidifies my tastes, and who doesn’t like that? Barlow provides a perfect example of how something can appear pretty careless and alarmingly relaxed but contain great consideration and detail within. - & thank THE LORD for that, otherwise I would have been squished and ruined the RA’s fancy floor. *Some further emphasise on the fact that Phyllida Barlow's work is really massive. If you feel like you learned absolutely nothing about Barlow's practice, and you actually wanted too: watch this Swell then, so long! Mitchell Smith xx



Images taken on my iphone, but obviously all rights go to Phyllida Barlow and The Royal Academy of Arts.

Who the Heck wrote this? Mitchell Smith Artist & Writer www.msmith.art

Want a review? Nice one, get in touch: mitchellsmithart@gmail.com