Phyllida Law’s dock vs John Russell’s boy and cat

It was exciting to be outside Tate Britain as the door opened on Sunday morning. At five to ten there was a tremendous noise of heavy chains being hauled up and huge locks grinding, although the doors stayed shut until precisely ten a.m. Then a gentleman pushed the huge, battered doors apart and the thin crowd outside was permitted to enter.  Tate door pics

I was there for the British Folk Art exhibition (on until August 31) but on the way to the exhibition entrance I was waylaid by Phyllida Barlow’s dock.

Tate Barlow 4

This was completely unexpected and all the more exciting for that. I have barely heard of Phyllida Barlow and had no idea what sort of work she did. In the context of the pillared halls of Tate Britain, her monumental piles and structures seemed incredible: brazen, cheerful, fearless, testing the tolerance of the establishment.

Without knowing anything at all about the artist beyond her being female, the ‘story’ I wrote in my head was of a young artist, outside the strictures of the ‘academy’, just building something enormous to show she could. Hammering relentlessly, one piece of wood after another, and another, just for the hell of it – outside of all architectural correctness, regardless of danger (I’m sure there isn’t really any danger, only the fantasy of it). I felt there was an element of her daring people to say she couldn’t or shouldn’t do such work because she’s a woman – and then she shows them.

Tate Barlow 1

From the centre of what seemed almost to amount to a city of structures – the ‘dock’ of the title, I suppose – I glimpsed this painting by the 18th century pastel artist John Russell, ‘Boy and Cat’ of 1791.

Tate Russell boy and cat

Boy and Cat by John Russell

The contrast between Barlow’s cardboard and wood madness and this sentimental frippery was absurd. I just thought how fantastic that such unfettered, bonkers creativity has made it into the very heart of Tate Britain.

Tate Barlow 5

Later I came out of the Folk Art show and walked round the new(ish) chronological rehang. This, too, I thought was amazingly lively and imaginative in its choice of works. It’s really better than Tate Modern, I think, as a survey of modern British art (I only saw the later part of the ‘walk’ – apparently it starts with work from 1545. And Tate Modern has a more international approach).

Some favourites spotted:

Situationist Apartment Mai '68 by Dexter Dalwood (who David remembers playing bass in The Cortinas during Bristol's 1976 'Summer of punk')

Situationist Apartment Mai ’68 by Dexter Dalwood (who David remembers playing bass in The Cortinas during Bristol’s 1976 ‘Summer of punk’)

The Body and Ground (or Your Lovely Smile) by Brian Griffiths

The Body and Ground (or Your Lovely Smile) by Brian Griffiths

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews

Tate Stack by Tony Cragg

Stack by Tony Cragg


Tate Barlow 3

Good sightline through to a Henry Moore — they work well together.

I also found Adrian Searle’s review of dock in the Guardian. He liked it too, but I was taken aback by the ferocity of the comments under the line. Almost every one seemed to be negative, mocking the Heath Robinson nature of the sculptures, the fact that they’re made out of ‘rubbish’. It was disheartening. I think if the commenters experienced the work in the flesh, they might be infected by its anarchy and mad ambition, as I was.

Interior of one of Barlow’s monumental structures


Posted by Jane

2 thoughts on “Phyllida Law’s dock vs John Russell’s boy and cat

  1. Interesting…all the “art” pictured in this article is crap, except “Boy with Cat” which was insultingly called “frippery” and the grammatically incorrect and uninspiring “Me and Melanie Swimming”. The rest of the crap I could knock out in a weekend using junk from the local landfill. Let’s see the writer complete a bit of “frippery” as lovely and technically brilliant as “Boy with Cat”. And I hope the boy and the cat had happy lives – this is an image of creatures that actually lived.

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