Fruitmarket – Phyllida Barlow

The esteemed former keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Duncan Thomson, had one of the few seats for Phyllida Barlow’s talk on her show at the Fruitmarket.   He piped up to ask  the disarmingly simple question of her sculptures:  ‘Why do they look the way they are?’.

Phyllida Barlow Fruitmarket

Phyllida Barlow at Fruitmarket Gallery with director Fiona Bradley

Barlow looked non plussed by the question.   But Thomson is a fan of the show, though you’d be forgiven for taking him for a traditionalist.  His best remembered show at the portrait gallery was the great exhibition on the Scottish portraitist Henry Raeburn, more or less his swan song there.  He recently attributed a rare Raeburn study for the summer exhibition at the Fine Art Society in Dundas Street (where it is on sale for £32,000).

“I’m moved by these great chunks of reality,” he said.  “I have a visceral reaction to these huge things, which actually don’t represent anything in reality, and I think that’s what intrigues me. The artist has an obsession with building materials, I can imagine she might spend a lot of time in Jewson’s yard, the building supplier. But also being who I am, I tend to look for references to earlier art, which are not immediately visible. ”

“I said to her that the great long pieces of wood encrusted with white plaster, had a resonance for me of Michelangelo’s partially carved slaves, the series in Florence, and they also, to me, have resonances of the explorations of material by Giacometti.

“I think she was slightly taken aback because, rightly, she didn’t need to explain them in words, but in fact she went on and very eloquently revealed a great deal.”

The objects that fill the Fruitmarket are visually huge and heavy, they look as if they are made of cement, iron and stone.   In fact – and without rapping your knuckles on the art work, it’s a little hard to be sure – they use much flimsier construction materials, like cardboard.

Phyllida Barlow, Fruitmarket

Barlow’s work is not what you might call easy, though it is fairly overwhelming.  These giant pieces are far removed from the kind of art on any portrait gallery walls.   But if Barlow is setting out to make materials not what they seem,  “they have this quite old fashioned function of representation, in more conventional art,” he said, to convey something the artist has seen or remembered.

“Any artist is using plaster or marble to represent reality, and though there are no obvious references in her work, there is this sense she is using these materials as something they are not quite what they seem to be . . there is a sense she is using these materials to recall something. or represent something, she has seen, even if it’s only walking past piles of materials in the street.”

“Ultimately you can look at any traditional painting and say that is just a load of linseed oil and coloured earth. I don’t have any problem trying to follow where artists are leading. It’s this idea of the possibility of infinite exploration in art that intrigues me – there should be no limit to how far they can explore. ”

Barlow said in her talk – from my somewhat sketchy notes  – that she sets out in her work, she said, to ask “what is the thing I am most afraid of, and then doing it.”  She uses very ordinary materials, that she has been using for forty years.

“I think I’m incredibly dishonest.   Everything has an element of dishonesty.”   She works with assistants, but encourages them to use her “one swipe” technique that gives the impression of cement being hastily wiped across the work.

“Human endeavours to create order fascinate me,” she said.  “The way streets are repaired absolutely fascinate me. ”  She recalled being mesmerised by the contents of houses dumped on a street.

One person suggested her works be used as the setting for a contemporary dance show.  “I would like to do an exhibition where people would crawl into the sculpture,” she declared.  “I won’t do it, because I have false knees.”

Phyllida Barlow, Fruitmarket,

In the audience listening to Phyllida Barlow at Fruitmarket

In his time at the portrait gallery, Thomson commissioned contemporary artists  – Patrick Heron to paint Joe Grimond, which “raised a few eyebrows in its day”.    He’s done the Liotard and Escher shows at the National Galleries of Scotland, but was “underwhelmed” by David Bailey.

“I was pretty dubious about giving over the whole of that great building to photographs that were ultimately rather repetitive, different subjects but so much the same. I found that to be rather tedious to be quite honest,” he said.

He’s keeping an eye out for John Bellany’s show at the Open Eye Gallery – particularly the suggestion that there are early drawings there.   Perhaps twenty years ago, he came home with a Bellany drawing from Glasgow, that he paid £600 for, horrifying his wife Julia.    They sell for a tidier sum now.