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Memorable imagery

11 February 2012

11:00 AM

11 February 2012

11:00 AM

The RWA galleries offer a superb setting for a sculptor, and Ivor Abrahams RA (born 1935) has taken full advantage of the beautiful top-lit space of the main rooms to present a lively retrospective look at his principal themes and achievements. The work ranges from the 1950s to the present day, and embraces a number of different media, from drawing, painting, collage and screenprinting to relief and fully three-dimensional objects. The scale also runs the gamut from hand-held to overwhelming (‘Head of the Stairs’ is three-metres high), while the variety of materials includes bronze, plastics, ceramic and flocking.

This is the kind of work that cannot be judged from reproductions in books: it has to be seen and experienced to be fully understood and appreciated. The RWA display is not just impressive, it is life-affirming, original, subversive, witty and quite simply surprising and enjoyable. It’s the sort of show the Tate or the RA should be putting on, but somehow don’t quite manage, in their blatant pursuit of showbiz and box office.

The exhibition begins with a key early work in reinforced plaster and resin called ‘Red Riding Hood’ (1963). A large, commanding sculpture, it features a limbless, headless figure in a red dress under the canopy of a tree like a vast rhubarb leaf. A small bronze version from 1997 is nearby. The imagery suggests surrealism but has something cinematic about it: two influences that will recur in Abrahams’s work without ever compromising its innate originality.

For many years he was involved with garden imagery (hence the exhibition’s title), and in the beloved suburban backyard found a setting for his ideas which freed him to explore different methods and effects. He was one of the first to experiment with plastics, and when used in conjunction with flocking created some highly unusual and memorable imagery. Behind ‘Red Riding Hood’ a couple of 3D shrubbery sculptures occupy the floor, while round the walls hang various 2D garden pieces. Chief among them is ‘Summer Sundial’, a silkscreen with luxuriant flocking, ‘Open Gate’ from 1972 and a newer work, ‘Park Bed’, a powerful cut-out drawing with flock from 2009.

The far end of this grand double gallery is dominated by two large sculptures: the magnificent ‘Urban Owl’ (2004), grumpy deity of the parking meter, and ‘Head of the Stairs’ (2001), a post-cubist architectural extravaganza of plunging perspectives and intercut walkways. Another major presence is ‘Walking the Dog’: an exercise in ambulant architecture, which might be called ‘Taking the Lamppost with You’. The figure goes in and out of Abrahams’s imagery; mostly absent from the gardens, it re-emerges with a vengeance in the bronzes of bathers and gymnasts he made in the 1980s and 90s.

The smaller room off the main gallery is densely populated with these figures, striking various sensuous or acrobatic poses, and balanced by a choir of owls, including a trio of disreputable inebriates, rendered in mild steel and fired enamel. Birds have been a recent preoccupation for Abrahams, but he has also returned to suburban themes with his series of hieratic sculptures which take the façades of various dwellings (Stockbroker Tudor a favourite) and use them as the carved faces of totem poles. Here is a sculptor forever celebrating but also subverting the familiar and demotic.

In 2007, Abrahams held a show of his sculpture in the vast lobby of One Canada Square, in London’s Canary Wharf. He is just one of more than 130 artists to have exhibited there in the past ten years, whose work is now celebrated in a book, Sculpture at Canary Wharf: A Decade of Exhibitions (ISBN 978-0-9563648-1-4). When so much public sculpture is without any aesthetic merit or formal competence, it is good to be reminded of an initiative dedicated to placing high-quality art in a working public environment. The organisers, who include Theresa Bergne, Ann Elliott and Sally Williams, are to be congratulated on so diverse a programme. Flicking through this substantial hardback the sculptors who stand out include Eilis O’Connell, Charles Hadcock, Nigel Hall, Ann Christopher, Lynn Chadwick, Felicity Aylieff and Phillip King.

One of Abrahams’s most innovative sculptural ventures has been to persist in working between two and three dimensions. He makes great play with collage and relief, and often paints his forms, effectively confusing the issue further. It thus makes a very interesting comparison to move now to an exhibition in Islington, at Art Space Gallery, largely of work that also operates between painting and sculpture. This remarkable and unexpected exhibition tells the story of the Leicester Group and its associates, a bunch of young artists who gathered around the inspirational teacher Tom Hudson (1922–97). Hudson was the course director at Leicester College of Art, and was a leading light in the philosophy of art education known as Basic Design. This was an attempt to produce a form of instruction suitable for a technological age, and which ignored traditional craft skills in favour of ‘visual literacy in the use of colour, establishment of form and construction of space’, as Mark Hudson, Tom’s son, puts it in the exhibition catalogue.

It was an immensely influential doctrine, especially when promulgated by such high-powered teachers as Victor Pasmore, Richard Hamilton and Harry Thubron. Hudson himself was no slouch, and besides making his own rather good work, by thought and action he inspired the other artists showing here. To list these alphabetically they are: Cristina Bertoni, Laurie Burt, Michael Chilton, John Gingell, Victor Newsome, Robin Page, Michael Sandle, Terry Setch and Norman Toynton. Some of these have gone on to establish substantial reputations, such as Sandle, Setch and Newsome, but all are worth looking at. Using a typically Sixties cornucopia of materials, including plastics, wood, resin and metal, these artists satirised and revelled in the consumerism of their society, while making images which were, in Mark Hudson’s words, ‘more oblique and ambiguous than the overt celebrations of mainstream British Pop’.

A large acrylic painting on canvas by Terry Setch greets the visitor on entering the gallery, a highly accomplished and engaging abstract. Here, too, are the first of Tom Hudson’s mixed media pieces, marking him out as a practitioner of real inventiveness and ability. My favourite pieces are downstairs: Michael Sandle’s ‘4th Black Construction’ is a potent wall-piece which juxtaposes man-made, mechanical and organic imagery, while Victor Newsome’s fleshly canvas protrusions and orifices are a dark and disturbing presence. The revelation of the show for me is Mike Chilton, an artist who’s been hiding his light for too long under a bushel in Hull. His two wall reliefs, and particularly ‘Sea, Sand and Foam’ (1964), are works of real distinction and originality. Chilton deserves to be much better known, but I recommend the whole exhibition — an eye-opener.

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