Review: Abstract Landscapes at the Whitworth Art Gallery

By December 14, 2015


Tucked away in a small corner on the first floor of the gloriously renovated Whitworth Art Gallery, lies its latest exhibition, ‘Abstract Landscapes’.

The exhibition, which opened just over a month ago, features a modest yet refined collection from the gallery’s archives, and gathers work from some of the most celebrated abstract artists in British art history including, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Gillian Ayres.

The collection concentrates on the artists’ production during the 1950s and 1960s, a time when many of them were harnessing their own, unique abstract language and artistic identity. In these works we see how the artists tread the borders between the abstract and the figurative, drawing on the British landscape as their inspiration to create sculptures, textile and canvasses that echo unpredictable shifts in weather, the varied expanse of a hillside or the spit and twist of waves crashing into a cliff face.

A fitting welcome to the exhibition is Barbara Hepworth’s Coré (1966). The bronze sculpture, stationed at the top of the stairs as you enter the space, gracefully fuses the curvature of the female form with the artist’s experience of the Cornish landscape. The resulting piece is a sculpture that effortlessly captures the rise and fall of waves against the coastline.

As we move further into the exhibition, the visitor is presented with an eye-catching piece from Scottish-born artist, William Scott. Created by the Edinburgh Weavers from a design drawn by Scott, Skaill (1959) is a floor-to-ceiling gouache and wax resist textile. Both the fractured nature of the design and the fragmented pieces of wax that create its textured surface, subtlety suggest a broken, rocky landscape.

As we edge towards the exhibition’s end, two works from Gillian Ayres hang on the wall, Reef (1957) and Untitled (1963). Unlike her counterparts elsewhere in the exhibition who favour muted organic tones, Ayre’s work adopts a more playful palette that seeks to bring to life the vibrant, liveliness of the British landscape.

In ‘Reef’, as the name suggest, the artist captures the swell of a steaming, foamy pool of waves as they energetically break against rock. In ‘Untitled’ however, the subject of this mixed-media composition is as ambiguous as the piece’s name. What we do see here however, is the artist’s attempt to articulate the changeable and at times, unfathomable, forces of nature.

In some ways it is a shame that this exhibition is given such a low-key profile in the gallery. Many of the artists featured have become synonymous with British cultural identity, yet there’s an unavoidable feeling that in this quiet corner of the Whitworth they are secondary to the gallery’s other current displays. That said, the collection offers a well-deserved nod to this often over-looked period in the movement and the artists who defined it.

Abstract Landscapes is open 14 November 2015- 10 January 2016.

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