Phyllida Barlow vs Elizabethan Treasures – Edward Lucie-Smith




Phyllida Barlow has long been one of the heroines of the professional contemporary art establishment here in Britain, without making much of an impact elsewhere. This was typified by what happened at the 2018 Venice Biennale, where her work occupied the British pavilion but was pretty much obliterated from the general gaze by the enormous Damien Hirst show in the same city that coincided with it.

Her new exhibition, in the equally new back galleries at Burlington House, may supply some compensation for this, though it is unlikely, because of its location, to do much to establish a fully international reputation. This said it is in terms of both time and place, rather a good show. Using everyday materials, it tries to change the viewer’s, or should I say the user’s, perception of where he or she is. That is to say, their perception of their relationship with the enclosed space within which they, and Barlow’s constructions, find themselves. They are space-modulators, rather than entirely independent objects. In present artistic circumstances, this is an interesting thing to do. It makes the visitor an active, not merely a passive, part of the exhibition.

In a certain sense, it is also democratic. There’s no suggestion that the visitor can possess these things. And not much of a suggestion, either, that you could have the same experience with them, in a different setting on a different occasion. The show as a whole is entitled ‘Cul de Sac’, and, as a little handbook tells you:
“Barlow refers to the exhibition space as a ‘protagonist’ in the overall creation, and as being on an ‘equal footing’ with the work itself. The third player is the audience; their encounter with the installation completes the production.”

Though the handbook also claims:
“Here individual pieces have the opportunity to speak for themselves, and also to be viewed as part of an orchestrated whole. This deliberate economy enables singular works to be seen with greater clarity and from numerous vantage points. It has the effect of making ‘links’ of the pieces, emphasising their essential role in the overall arrangement of the installation.”

In common parlance, this is what is known as trying to have your cake, and at the same time eating it. It is doubtful that this show, or anything resembling it, will be seen in the same form again. Once it’s over, it’s over. Some of the smaller items may survive, on museum pedestals or private table-tops, but they are unlikely to make much impression if they do. Their main function, in those circumstances, will be to serve as souvenirs of a much larger aesthetic event.

To be clear, this is both democratic: the same experience offered on the same terms to every member of its projected audience – but also time-limited. Go and enjoy. But go now.

The show devoted to portrait miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, now at the National Portrait Gallery, couldn’t be more different. It holds up a mirror to a long-ago closed society, full of rivalries yet very sure of its own values. These tiny portraits follow on from the images that medieval artists made for books yet are purely secular. Commissioning and exchanging them was part of an elaborate web of relationships, political and personal. The elite audience that they were made for was a very different one from that which peers into the NPG’s showcases to see them today. ‘Peer’ is the word. To examine them properly you maybe need a large magnifying glass and perhaps a pair of sharp elbows as well. Though a number represent Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, they are not public objects, but very private ones.

This said, it’s a fascinating show, though at times a slightly frustrating one. There are a lot of coded messages in these images, and we have lost the clues. Look, for example, at the portrait of an unknown man against a background of flames, wearing an earring in the shape of a cross, and a jewel – perhaps a case for a miniature – on a long chain around his neck. He is clothed only in a shirt, open almost to the waist. The flames are touched with gold, to shimmer if the miniature is moved, as of course, it can’t be here. Or see the likeness of another unknown, who clasps a hand descending to him from a cloud. We are left peeping into this world metaphorically, as well as literally. There are secrets it won’t give up. Even apart from this, democracy is not part of its nature.

Words/Top Photo Edward Lucie-Smith

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