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Display of works by internationally renowned artist Phyllida Barlow opens at Colchester’s Firstsite gallery

04 Aug Display of works by internationally renowned artist Phyllida Barlow opens at Colchester’s Firstsite gallery

A display of works by one of the international art world’s brightest stars – Phyllida Barlow – has just opened at Colchester’s Firstsite gallery.

The sight of the physical devastation to London’s East End, caused by Second World War bombing raids, is one of Phyllida Barlow’s earliest childhood memories. The destruction and repair of the urban environment has since become one of her principle inspirations. Placed in the welcome area of Firstsite, and leading the reopening of the gallery following the imposed lockdown, Firstsite highlights the parallel between these works and deconstruction of contemporary society and subsequent repair and recovery needed to our collective mental health in the face of this adversity.

For more than 50 years, Phyllida has taken inspiration from her surroundings to create imposing installations that can be at once menacing and playful. She creates anti-monumental sculptures from inexpensive, low-grade materials such as cardboard, fabric, plywood, polystyrene, scrim and cement; from the industrial to the domestic, and mixes them together. She takes the ordinary and transforms it into the extraordinary, composing what she describes as ‘a kind of still life’.

The artworks in the Firstsite display are drawn from exhibitions made for The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (2015), and the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2017). They have been brought together to coincide with the exhibition Tell me the story of all these things (until 11 October) which has been curated by ‘radical women’ of Colchester. It examines the role of emotion and soft power in our society and how this can be used positively to connect and empower us.

Speaking about the start of her art education at the Slade School of Art, at the age of 19, Phyllida recalls “A male tutor, a very successful artist at the time, came to me and said ‘I won’t be talking to you very much, because by the time you’re 30 you will be having babies and making jam.’ I just managed to say ‘What’s wrong with that?’  Of course, he couldn’t answer that. But that was the sort of chilling reminder that this was a male domain and that girls were very privileged to be allowed into it. What happens to that huge number of women who are at art school and what does capitalism offer in terms of being an artist if you don’t get a galle ry or if you’ve got children, all the usual laments that we can make as women about trying to have two conflicting parts of one’s life, in tandem.”

Phyllida Barlow has had a long career as an artist and a fine art teacher, including Professor of Fine Art and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Slade until 2009, and Chelsea College of Art and Design before that. She was elected as a Royal Academician in 2011.

Firstsite Director, Sally Shaw says “These beautiful works instantly encourage contemplation, their size is both confrontational but also reassuring, and as you weave between these huge structures, staring up at them, it produces an almost meditative effect.  As we welcome our visitors back to Firstsite we want to provide as many opportunities as possible for everyone to become lost in art and their imagination and Phyllida Barlow’s work embodies this perfectly. These arresting sculptures lead our reopening programme which includes an empowering exhibition curated by Afro-Futures_UK, beautiful local art from artist Sonia Coode-Adams and the Colchester and Ipswich Art Societies, and culminates at the back of our building with the uplifting “Tell me the story of all these things” exhibition. Our whole programme responds to the feedback we have received from our community throughout the lockdown and is designed to help everyone really take time to find comfort in creativity, and feel part of their community again, connecting with others through this shared experience of art, reflection and inspiration.”