Surface Work, Victoria Miro

Surface Work, Victoria Miro

The opening of 'Surface Work' at Victoria Miro galleries could not have been better timed.  Affirming the significant and far reaching role of women artists in the development of abstraction - arguably the most permanent change in visual culture of the twentieth century -  this exceptional exhibition coincided with the unveiling of Gillian Wearing's bronze statue of Millicent Fawcett on Parliament Square, a little less than a fortnight later. It is hard not to read the coalescence of these two milestones as defining a particular zeitgeist as we began to unfurl from Winter and headed into Spring with a renewed sense of purpose.

Amidst this excitement and no doubt collective sighs of relief, questions lingered. Why had it taken so long for a female, who helped to shape the course of political history, to be represented literally and metaphorically alongside male counterparts on Parliament Hill? The same could be said for an exhibition of female painters who, from diverse artistic positions and practices, were key contributors to abstraction. Both events signal a welcome cultural trend in projects focussed on revealing women undermined through traditional cannons of Western history, including that of art, and are radically overdue.   

The power of 'Surface Work' does not, however, lie solely in its positive premise. A quick sojourn around the multiple galleries and sites this large exhibition encompasses, affirms Victoria Miro as bestowing some of London's classiest spaces which create a beautiful backdrop to their exhibitions. In the hands of these galleries, works of art demand respect and contemplation: in this case, a particularly fitting tribute to the artists on display. 

'Surface Work' is certainly not short of artists. The roster of female painters spans a century and the globe, reiterating the chameleon nature of abstraction. Here, the narrative is simple. Women painters are more than mere footnotes in the history of contemporary painting: they are pioneers in their own right. This headline is delivered with aplomb. One reason is the sheer breadth and diversity of approach within the exhibition, which pertinently encapsulates the movement as a whole. That there is a sense that abstract painting seems to continually reinvent itself, is no doubt significant  to its longevity and its ongoing ability to inspire.

To put it simply, in this exhibition, the context is the work. Fifty painters across three venues, each with one work and individual aesthetic. Call it old-fashioned but the pure and simple viewing experience reaps rewards. For this, I am eternally grateful. Having waded through the Royal Academy's crowd-pleasing but overtly macho 'Abstract Expressionism' exhibition in 2017 for a meagre four female painters amongst the obvious Klein, Pollock, Rothko fan-fest , this sublime presentation elicits the feeling that that this tide may, at last, be turning. 

It has been well documented that the title of this exhibition comes from a quote by one of the artists included in this exhibition, Joan Mitchell,  who has albeit belatedly, received recognition for her contribution to the Abstract Expressionist movement.  She stated in a 1986 interview, “Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work.” In some ways it is a curious and possibility provocative choice: the quote suggests superficiality rather than deeper level of engagement with the materials and the practice of painting. On the flip side, it sets up an interesting paradigm for the viewer, one which resolves itself through the physical encounters with a largely brilliant selection of works which traverse decades, form and technique. 

Jessica Warboys' 'Sea Paintings' provided one of many thrilling encounters. Having spent several weeks reeling at having missed their presentation at both Towner Art Gallery and Frith Street Gallery the previous month,  the use of pigment and materials does not disappoint. Oozing energy and vigour they perfectly illustrate the focus on the Wharf Street gallery on younger artists in comparison to the West London counterpart. 

Hung salaciously, draped from the wall, Angela de La Cruz's 'Deflated IV (White)  invites but prohibits touch as does Sara Barker's work which is a welcome and deserved inclusion after a brilliant solo show at IKON  in 2016 which left an indelible impression. Incorporating steel, aluminium, glass as well as painted elements, Barker's work delicately hovers between sculpture, drawing and painting to create floor and wall-based works which trace lines in space. If there was ever a need to highlight physicality and materiality as central to abstraction, Barker's work does so in spades. 

There are more obvious inclusions of course. Viewing Gillian Ayre's 'Untitled' work from 1957 is particularly poignant in light of her recent passing. For admirers of Wearing, 'Surface Work' will provide a timely opportunity to honour her contribution to the movement and to the charge of female painters more broadly. In a similar vein, I revel in any opportunity to see Helen Frankenthaler's work. Her contribution - if not invention - of colour field painting, was recognised far too late. The importance of affirming the legacies of artists such as Mitchell, Lygia Clark and Lee Krasner amongst others, through presentation of their work and ongoing discussion remains important if the critical vacuum is to be readdressed. 

The gendered basis for selection has found critics as well as plaudits. I must admit, I often find this approach clunky and  reductive: it feels unwise and  slightly uncomfortable for a work's selection to be distilled down to the artist's gender.  Leave the question too far behind though and it is easy to stray away from the prescient issue of the art world's long-standing failure to offer women artists equal representation, critical acclaim and artistic respect. How artists and institutions can temper, if not remove this prejudice, remains as salient than ever. In the short-term, exhibitions such as 'Surface Work', will help gain the issue momentum. 

Not everything about 'Surface Work' is entirely convincing. That each of the 50 artists display a single works feels tightly controlled and unnecessarily stilted. It also means that some of the smaller and more subdued paintings included relinquish their presence to larger, more effusive works. Agnes Martin is one of the artists whose work falls victim to this approach. This is, ultimately, a small niggle though which does not dampen the exuberant display of female painters.  I left with two overriding feelings from 'Surface Work': that this was an exhibition that would forever alter how I view abstract painting and frustration that I had never had these artists' courage to pick up a paintbrush. 

 

'Surface Work' continues until 16 June. 

Victoria Miro, 14 St George Street, London W1S 1FE & 16 Wharf Road London N1 7RW | Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm | Free | www.victoria-miro.com

 

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