Phyllida Barlow Reimagines Sculpture and the Nasher Sculpture Center in Tryst

Over the weekend, the Nasher Sculpture Center unveiled Phyllida Barlow: tryst, a major exhibition of new works by the influential British artist, who has been working with sculpture since the 1960s. Using commonplace materials, Barlow has hand-built an imaginative world of organic structures that challenges common ideas about sculpture. By making the environment as important as the sculptures themselves, Barlow makes architecture a primary focus of this new exhibit.

Four years in the making, these installations were painstakingly put together. It required a great deal of physical labor, with some pieces being installed repeatedly. The limits of the museum’s space are thoroughly challenged. The exhibit explores the building physically, almost enough to draw comparisons to a ship in a bottle. The environment thrives on ambiguity, feeding on the dialogue between the work and its viewers. Many of these large-scale works seem simple at first glance, but as you maneuver your way through the rooms it will provoke you both intellectually and emotionally. 

For some, this exhibit of both free-form and structural installations may raise questions about the ideology of sculpture. These sculptural phenomena are not necessarily monuments and few could be categorized as "statues." These are ramshackle works of order and disorder, often constructed from recycled canvas and wood used for other exhibits, sometimes dipped in cement and often woven in scrim. But the sculptures stay in place and are not meant to be touched. The viewers are the moving elements making it old-fashioned in at least one sense. Not much else about these organic forms moving through the parallel spaces of the Nasher could be described as traditional. Taking up three of the gorgeous museum galleries, these are surprising and theatrical forms arranged with an imaginative sense of space. Certainly the work is eye-catching. Anyone passing by the front entrance will likely at least have to stop and take a look inside.

But surprising first impressions aside, this is a coherent body of work, well named tryst, as the experience feels like a private rendezvous between a visitor and the art. Barlow configures a wall into something like open arms and juxtaposes it with a structure that seems to have collapsed. Walking in the front door of the Nasher, you might have trouble deciding what to make of towering crates propped up by boards, until you head downstairs. Directly below these structures is a forest of recycled boards holding up cheap polyester cotton fabric with straight-off-the-shelf colors, a field of blank banners. Resembling paintings that jumped off the walls, these sculptures very much recall the works upstairs and viewers are invited to wander through what may be a crowd of protesters or a celebration. It makes great use of the gallery downstairs, first offering a distant glance as you descend the staircase.

Some of the most ambiguous forms are near the back door of the museum, essentially three enormous blobs propped up to showcase specific angles. Starting with a polystyrene core, these objects were covered with wet plaster and scrim before being injected with expanding foam. The foam pressed up against the wet shells, creating bulges, resulting in the emergence of organic shapes. The exterior of these sculptures is pink, which gives them a particularly fleshy look. A large cardboard shelf protrudes from one of these objects, hanging over the stairs. Here sculpture is amorphous, dynamic, dangerous.

Tryst never offers an eye-level look, instead it forces viewers to experience sculpture by maneuvering around these enormous works, looking up, looking across and looking through but never finding a perfect view. This challenging exhibit demands your full attention. This is no place to wander about, glancing at your phone; you will bump into someone or trip over something. This is what Barlow had in mind. This is a place that thrives on the interaction between the art and the viewer, unfolding as a piece of work throughout its multiple environments. And she is not providing any answers; even the title of the exhibit is a word with several meetings.

Using a dysfunctional geometry, some of these pieces are phallocentric and upright, some have collapsed, and one is even suspended sideways. Some are open, inviting; some are enclosed. And so the exhibition will be seen differently by different visitors. For some, this will seem a very playful, engaging environment. For others, it might recall a tragic landscape of destroyed buildings or other historical reverberations. Hanging sideways, a suspended piece is perhaps the most ambiguous. It could remind viewers of a staged photo opportunity of a statue being pulled down or perhaps it is simply an oil horse.

At times, it can seem very much like a natural disaster – the likes of which we have recently experienced in Texas – has blown into the Nasher. Some of these pieces may capture a state of reparation. But above all, tryst reveals the spirit of creating sculptures; the restless and joyous process of making and unmaking that seems to mimic the human spirit’s constant search for resolution.

See Phyllida Barlow: tryst at the Nasher Sculpture Center through August 30. Admission is $10.

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