Cul-de-Sac: Phyllida Barlow at the RA

Cul-de-sac is an exhibition of colourful contrasts.  Humour is everywhere. The work is both monumental and elegant.  A bundle of tall slim timbers stand proud in an alcove designed to hold the marble statue of a citizen of note as they welcome visitors walking up the stairs.  Their tops wrapped in indeterminate material they are not overawed by their patrician surroundings.

In the first room, the sculptures rise up to meet the light streaming into the galleries.  Elegant fabric forms gather in the corner, their insubstantial though colourful shapes contrasting with their heavy cylindrical concrete bases. 


Everywhere the sculptures play with balance and angles.  The unexpected planes suggest they may be on the edge of collapse and delicate uncertainty.   Large smooth blocks are held high close to the ceilings on soaring stilts, their joints roughly wrapped in plastered scrim.  The height and proportions create tension and precariousness. The fine stilts holding large blocks perilously aloft seem to defy gravity.  What is heavy, what is weightless? 


As the title suggests, visitors are forced to retrace their steps to leave the gallery.  They must leave by the only entrance.  The return journey offers different views.  Dense concrete slabs both on the ground and shaped as lintels held high above our heads slope at unlikely angles to lead the eye across the space.  The angles are different offering new perspectives and making different connections.  The visitors are rewarded with different relationships and new interplays. The gaggle of angled narrow poles effortlessly holding up the multi layered metal structure suggest they are frozen in the midst of a dance offering a strong contrast to the stolid column of solid grey across the room.


Even if they are no longer salvaged directly from skips, materials are still modest and non-precious.  This does nothing to diminish the refinement of works.  The feel of the exhibition is of work by an artist at ease with her practice and with nothing to prove and rather enjoying working with scale and irreverent materials.