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Pioneering Abstraction in ‘Surface Work’ at Victoria Miro, London
April 22, 2018
When we say abstraction, you say…Pollock! Drips! Dollops! Grids! Mondrian! Search those dusty filing cabinets at the back of your mind and you’re likely to pull out more than one reference to the macho brand of abstraction we know so well. But over at Victoria Miro this spring, it’s a season of ‘sisters are doin’ it for themselves’ with an exhibition dedicated to over fifty women that have defined abstract painting through the years. This feels like a show for the ‘Time’s Up’ generation. And while an exhibition that clumsily lumps female artists together is often a bad idea (just look at Saatchi’s attempt in 2016 with ‘Champagne Life’), Victoria Miro might have just cracked the code. Spread between the two galleries (one near Hoxton and the other in more traditional Mayfair), ‘Surface Work’ makes a clear case why these women from across the world and generations have something very particular in common. They have all added their voice to the abstraction debate.
In Mayfair the show opens with a crescendo of blockbuster American painters like Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler, who spent time in the shadows of their husbands Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. A warm symphony in blue, yellow and orange by Alma Thomas and a landscape of coloured discs by Howardena Pindell shine opposite the dream-like silhouettes of British artist Paule Vézelay. Take a turn and the show settles into a cooler gear with rhythmic lines and geometric forms by Agnes Martin, who disappeared from New York’s art scene in 1967 to live quietly in New Mexico, and constructivists Lygia Clark and Liubov Popova. Mary Ramsden also steals some modest attention even with an iconic Yayoi Kusama infinity net painting nearby that is sure to be snapped up quickly. The quiet restraint of these works is like a gentle exhale of breath between bursts of painterly energy and reveals how the phrase ‘Surface Work’ can be mean very different things to different people.
Over in Victoria Miro’s converted furniture factory in the east, heavy hitters like Joan Mitchell, Lynda Benglis, Gillian Ayres and Pat Steir are balanced by daring up and comers like the young Lebanese artist Dala Nasser and her tumbling work in marble dust, latex and trauma blankets. Turner Prize nominee Angela de la Cruz continues to do what she does best by disrupting abstract painting altogether with a painted canvas hung loosely from the wall like a cape or deflated balloon. For Instagram lovers there are the two Adriana Varejão works on display: one with a cracked surface like craters on the moon and the other ripped apart to reveal a bloodied centre. Meanwhile American painter Mary Heilmann and Lebanese-born Etel Adnan inject a heady dose of colour to the proceedings.
This exhibition moves through a hundred years of history without fuss and proves that Victoria Miro, now aged 72, is certainly not short on ambition. With such a cacophony of names though it’s hard to say if any one artist really stands out. Instead, these women, hailing from the deserts of New Mexico to the streets of Latin America, challenge, echo and respond to each other to forge a daring language of abstraction.
Words by Claire Philips
Surface Work at Victoria Miro, until 19 May 2018 at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road, London N1 7R, and 16 June 2018 at Victoria Miro Mayfair, 14 St George Street, London W1S 1FE