Picking Up the Pieces: Phyllida Barlow at Hauser & Wirth

‘untitled: upturnedhouse’ (2012) by Phyllida Barlow. (Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth)

Hauser & Wirth gallery has become difficult to navigate. Chunks of concrete, scraps of burlap and shards of fiberboard all but block passage through the space. An upturned house is wedged in the first room, like a ship in a bottle.

The gallery is on the Upper East Side—this is not the work of Sandy, but rather of British sculptor Phyllida Barlow, who makes hulking, vaguely sinister-looking objects from humble materials, and whose artistic practice of many years—she is in her 60s—is eerily resonant with the recent hurricane. Her abstract sculptures—which are evocative of everything from store awnings to sea anemones to tree trunks—are made from the kinds of urban materials we are more likely, this week, to see in piles on street corners, the remains of homes and businesses. Her work has been said to capture the transience of life.

“Things being destroyed and rebuilt is inherent to most natural cycles,” Ms. Barlow said on Monday afternoon in the gallery, as assistants swarmed around her, touching up paint. (Due to Sandy, her flight from London was delayed by several days, slashing their time to install the show in half.) Destroying and rebuilding has long been part of her practice—some pieces in this show are made of materials recycled from older ones.

The mammoth piece at the front, the one that resembles a boarded-up, upside-down house, can also be seen as an abstract painting in space, an arrangement of brightly colored planes. She has made many such house-like structures, and back in 2005 they also happened to find common ground with current events. She recalled listening to a radio broadcast from New Orleans after Katrina. “A man vividly described how, after 10 days, he returned to where he thought his house was,” she said. “He had to wade through waist-high mud. There was a tree he remembered and some remnants, and then he saw this whole tilted structure and couldn’t think what it was, but he recognized it. It was his house, and it was completely turned on its head. His description was not only incredibly moving but incredibly sculptural. There was this conflict between something that was a human tragedy matched by someone giving one of the most incredibly eloquent descriptions of what sculpture is as an experience—of walking around and discovering aspects of a structure that you knew incredibly well, but you’d never seen it that way before.” She paused. “There is a conflict—a moral conflict about using things that have an enormous, painful significance.” Another pause. “The subject I’m involved in is the sculptural experience.”

Picking Up the Pieces: Phyllida Barlow at Hauser & Wirth