Exhibitions Memorable Imagery

By Lambirth, Andrew | The Spectator, February 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions Memorable Imagery


Lambirth, Andrew, The Spectator


Eden and Other Suburbs: The Life and Work of Ivor Abrahams Royal West of England Academy, Queen's Road, Clifton, Bristol, until 4 March Transition: The Inner Image Revisited Art Space Gallery, 84 St Peter Street, N1, until 2 March 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 handheld 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 facades 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. …

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