In the decades following the inception of Abstract Expressionism, the movement expanded and regenerated in waves, with each phase bringing new artists, concepts, and perspectives. Although this style remains closely associated with the post-war New York avant-garde art scene, its reach spread beyond borders, and it is within the dynamic work of painter Gillian Ayres (1930-2018) that we see one of a small number of British artists who were working contemporaneously with the second generation of Abstract Expressionists.
Where Ayres was the only woman to feature in the influential 1960 RBA Gallery exhibition Situation (a group show in which 20 British abstract artists asserted their bold perspective for the new decade), the reverberating legacy of Ab Ex and the enduring perseverance of women artists claiming space for themselves means that, today, the Sabrina exhibition can to bring together a group of 10 British women and non-binary artists as a cross-section of artists engaging with abstraction across generations.
The namesake of the show is Ayres' 1978 painting Sabrina. The painting embodies a period when the artist began to work in oils and her brushwork gained increased energy. In some sections, contrasting colours and textures are adjoined, setting each other apart, while in other areas, hues blend and bleed together. The canvas is dense with layers, which will have required long stretches of time between applications due to the slow drying time of oil paint; in this way, the work manages to be an exercise in, both, patience and expressive action.
There is a strong visual kinship between Sabrina and Michaela Yearwood-Dan's untitled benches, which have paper clay and colourful flashes of paint applied in a thick impasto; the texture gives each piece an almost topographical appearance. The works bridge Yearwood-Dan's painting and sculptural work, but she has also used them to improve accessibility in art spaces in some of her previous exhibitions by allowing visitors to sit on them. Texture is also a standout element of Francesca Mollett's paintings, which she creates through mixing layers of shorter strokes and larger colour fields to create areas that practically vibrate as they reflect light in different ways.
The paintings in this show convey the energy and action so closely associated with abstract expressionism and intimately allude to each artists' process. The brushstrokes in Tracey Emin's You Come to Me dash back and forth across the surface, leaving affecting trails of her hand in motion. The linework of Caroline Jackson's paintings also show the pathways of the artist's hand, but where Emin's strokes show the vigour and changing direction of her hand, Jackson's lines are comparatively stayed, with the energy coming more from the interplay of the strokes alongside each other. Hayley Tompkin's broad strokes similarly draw the viewer's eye around the canvas, inviting us to study how the layers and hues interrelate.
Abstraction does not preclude representative imagery, and subtle figuration can be observed in the work of Pam Evelyn. One interesting aspect of her process is her desire to delicately balance representation and abstraction, without allowing one to succumb to the other. In this way, the artist says that her works can be loosely identified as figurative or landscape works.
Even in completely abstract forms, strong storytelling potential remains. Katy Moran's works, which are painted over found paintings, create mystery around which elements have been hidden and exposed. Tantalising questions can be raised about the origin of the painting and how the found work relates to Moran's reworked image. The text on Daisy Parris's False Hope alludes to loss and longing experienced through a dream-with this context, the fields of colour could evoke something very primal. Victoria Morton's Wake Yourself Up sits in beautiful dialogue with Parris' work, with Morton's electric yellow hues providing a wilder counterpart to Parris's more contemplative colour palette and implying a very different-almost psychedelic-sort of dream.
Across all of these paintings, we are invited to explore the pluralism that can be found in abstract expressionism and celebrate the incredible intergenerational presence of British women and non-binary artists working in this captivating and spirited style.
Ferren Gipson, art historian, writer and presenter