Andrew Lambirth

Memorable imagery

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.

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