There could be no better place to unleash Phyllida Barlow than Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries. Left to its own devices, the museum’s central hall is a soulless space. Designed as a sculpture gallery by John Russell Pope and W.H. Romaine-Walker in 1937, its barrel-vaulted interior, with its Ionic columns and sleek stone surfaces, was a last gasp of neoclassicism at a moment when notions of order and symmetry had lost all their oomph.
Barlow, of course, is the scourge of pomp. Now in her 70th year, the British sculptor had to forge her way in a world where sonorous machismo – from the weighty industrial steel works of Antony Caro to the earnest humility of Arte Povera – was all the rage. With five children to care for, including one who is now the successful contemporary artist Eddie Peake, it’s little wonder that she slipped under the radar. For decades, she scavenged both her time and her materials. She is better known for her inspiring teaching at the Slade than as an artist; her alumni included Rachel Whiteread, Tacita Dean and Martin Creed.
By the time she had her first major show at the Serpentine Gallery in 2010, necessity had become the mother of invention. Barlow had forged an oeuvre out of stuff from the scrap heap: cardboard, polystyrene, industrial timber, fabric and felt. She eschews carving and welding in favour of wrapping, stacking and sticking. If the colours don’t match and the edges don’t meet, so much the better. Her signature shapes are the heap, the blob and the lump.
Let loose inside the strait-laced Duveen, she has a ball and so do we. Inspiration struck, she has said, when she walked out of Tate Britain and on to the riverbank. “Going out into the winter light and just seeing this black, shiny coiling surface of water with the quasi-industrial riverside stuff on the other side and … the boats and barges with big containers on them – I just thought, ‘That’s what I want do!’”
The result is somewhere between On the Waterfront and Steptoe and Son, as the sculptor conjures a world that is simultaneously wharf, rubbish dump and building site. Entitled “dock” – that lower-case “d” is of a piece with her determination to puncture grandiosity in all its forms – the installation opens with a cathedral of scruffy, plywood scaffolding from which are suspended five bulky oblongs whose oil-black skins, stamped with crude staples, evoke the shipping containers she viewed outside.
Viewed head on, the ensemble briefly possesses a brutal, anti-sublime lyricism in the vein of Anselm Kiefer. But when we discover two containers rammed by pillars so that they explode in a sickly goo of polystyrene froth, we know that the Teutonic godfather here is the Austrian sculptor Franz West, the king of kinky play.
From here, Barlow embarks on a dangerous game of balancing monumentality with mischief and mess. (She is often described as anti-monumental. Actually, her sense of scale would give Bernini a run for his money. It’s just that her empire is built with stuff that is destroyed, discarded or invisible. She once said that what fascinated her about sculpture is “the armature, the undercladding, the trappings that get hidden”.)
There is a tower, then, but with its battered cardboard hide full of dents and the way it is held together with strips of fluorescent masking tape, it’s crying out for a dose of Viagra. On the far side of the pillared loggia that divides the gallery, a cliff of skeletal wooden crates rears up the wall, one side shielded by a skin of panels whose slapdash paintwork suggests a home decorator has been at work. Beyond that, two mysterious slabs of pointed plywood hang from a web of wadding.
A word of warning: do not pause here and look northwards – the space ahead looks like a junkyard and not in a good way. Instead, walk to the far end and look back towards the river. From here, Barlow’s final pieces resolve into a haphazard yet indisputable equilibrium. On the left side sprawls an apocalyptic spillage of scrap wood. On the right, a teetering, painted stockade blossoms into effusive tufts of fabric. In the centre, framed by a spindly gateway of wooden scaffolding, hangs a mammoth pod of dirty white industrial cladding which oozes tongues of pink and brown cloth from its innards.
These cheeky, perilous invasions act as an elemental new map of the Duveen’s topography. Their ragged peaks draw our eye upwards to expose and interrupt the gallery’s airy, luminous volumes. The clumsy suspensions hover with a still, hieratic presence that echoes in the emptiness around them. Sliced into an asymmetrical wedge by the tsunami of crates, the loggia reveals a provocative choreography of lopped-off lines and unfinished curves. Rocked out of its bombast by Barlow’s hazardous, unruly structures, the Duveen is blessed with an unstable architectural poetry. Without mess, Barlow shows us, there can be no majesty.
There is a vogue right now for celebrating the discovery of older women artists who have been invisible for decades. On many levels, Barlow fits right in there. Yet looking at the imaginative havoc she has wrought at Tate, it’s impossible not to think her wilderness years served her well. She has said that she is both attracted and repelled by the “heroic, macho thing” which stamped so much of her artistic epoch. The thrilling, precarious tension between chaos and reason that stamps her Duveen commission shows that she has stayed true to the masters’ lessons of scale, symmetry and spectacle even as she discovered how to defy them. Sometimes it pays to be a woman in a man’s world.