Leaving the crowds behind after the frenzied week of Frieze, I headed down to the New Museum after waiting for a month in anticipation to see some of my favorite artists show under one roof. Though there are numerous shows currently at the New Museum, I was there to see Phyllida Barlow, Tacita Dean and Nathalie Djurberg, all artists with whom I have had minimal exposure in a public setting but know from what I have seen that I have a profound interest in exploring further. Making my way to the fourth floor, I stepped out into a field of monumental sculptures by Phyllida Barlow (b. 1944, England) for her exhibition entitled siege. My first and only time seeing Barlow’s work was at Hauser & Wirth London in their Piccadilly gallery, where her work stood immense and impeccably wedged within the space’s existing architecture (the site is converted from an old bank). For the ambitious solo exhibition in London entitled RIG and likewise with siege, Barlow exhibited some of her most accomplished pieces all of which were made from mundane, utilitarian construction materials such as timber, cement, polystyrene, chicken wire, cardboard and roughly cut fabric.
The majority of her sculptures are towering structures that dwarf the spectator as if one were standing in a forest. Barlow dilutes the nature of her mundane media by her exquisite use of color, whether included by virtue of fabric, electrical tape or spray paint. For siege, Barlow exhibits her characteristically massive structures as similar to pieces I have seen previously, such as untitled: 21 arches (2012) and untitled: crushed boxes (2012). In pieces such as untitled: balcony (2012) and untitled: broken stage (2012) however, she adds more of a tangible architectural thread that differ slightly from her conceptual-based sculptures. Her work mimics the urban environment in both materiality and the nature of the imposing structures that swallow – or impede upon – the viewer.
With pieces such as untitled: crushed boxes (2012) Barlow depicts weight through the manner in which her boxes pile upon a fabric cushion, thin or bulging in parts, depicting the sensation of being crushed. Her work maneuvers within a certain corporeal consciousness similar to the work of Eva Hesse or Robert Morris in which the weight – or the interior – of the body is made manifest through the use of material. With aspects of both Arte Povera and Minimalism, Barlow’s work is sensational in its rawness, and though I rather missed the space at Hauser & Wirth London that added an irreplaceable dimension to her work, Barlow’s structures are not to be missed in the immense setting of the New Museum’s spaces.
On the third floor, Tacita Dean’s (b. 1965, England) exhibition entitled Five Americans explores the theme of preservation and memoriam through filmmaking as it intersects with various artistic mediums such as painting, writing and dance. By way of 16mm films, Dean features five influential American artists spanning several generations: Julie Mehretu, Cy Twombly, Leo Steinberg, Claes Oldenburg and Merce Cunningham. Works such as Edwin Parker (2011) and Manhattan Mouse Museum (2011) follow artists Cy Twombly and Claes Oldenburg respectively in their studios, spaces that despite the aura attached to these renowned artists by name are places of quotidian banality of comings and goings.
There is an aspect of prescience in Dean’s works, as each are bound by a common thematic thread that deals with the notion of expiration. For instance in The Line of Fate (2011), Dean sits with art historian Leo Steinberg as he finishes his last book about Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo before his death months later, a fact unknown at the time when making the film. This is a similar case with Edwin Parker in which Dean films Cy Twombly in his studio amongst what would be his final artworks during his last months alive. Even in her other works albeit more subtle, the theme of preservation becomes contingent upon the cognitive artistic process that she poignantly captures.
The Parade presented by Nathalie Djurberg (b. 1978, Sweden) with music by Hans Berg (b. 1978, Sweden) is found in the museum’s next-door space ‘Studio 231’. In an eccentric field of dazzling puppetry, a parade it is. A snaking trail made up of hundreds of exotic and fictitious birds scatter the floor under spotlights, frozen in mid-preen and warble. Each bird installation – whether sparrow or human-sized – has the craftsmanship of a Julie Taymor theater prop, with each muslin feather painted in an ombré of fanciful hues. Alongside her puppets, five animations are projected on the walls playing to the discordant melodies of Hans Berg’s compositions.
Immediately upon entering the space, the menagerie comes alive with the eerie tinkering of chimes, a soundtrack that gives life to the nightmarish aspect of Djurberg’s mad animals and sinister animations. Her animation videos typically depict women as the central character in an anti-heroic role, often times as victims of absurd cruelty flecked with sexual overtones. Her videos feature handmade puppets both animals and humans, crudely rendered from clay, fabric, string and dolls hair, with lumps, bumps, spidery limbs and clownish faces. The Parade as a body of work exists in a similar abject vein as her various other works, yet in this exhibition she focuses on the avian rituals of flocking, mating and pageantry. Her videos portray explicit aspects of cruelty, betrayal and greed, in which her characters – both animal and human – play out instances of physical and psychological savagery.
Djurberg’s work is brilliant in its manner of transparency. I am taken with the way in which she casts a light on the undesirable or abject aspects of human and animal behavior as the cynosure of her métier. And as usual, Berg’s musical compositions coupled with Djurberg’s claymation videos and theatrical installations presents a captivating mastery that dutifully emanates from their projects time and time again.
Phyllida Barlow’s siege runs through June 24th, Tacita Dean’s Five Americans runs through July 1st and The Parade by Nathalie Djurberg with Hans Berg runs through August 26th. For more information visit the New Museum’s site.