Since the early 70s the Mayor Gallery has regularly championed female artists, beginning with Agnes Martin and continuing into the 90s with Eva Hesse, Susan Rothenberg, Rebecca Horn, Pauline Boty and others. Now, for its final show in Cork Street, the gallery has selected work from the past half century by six female abstract artists, three from Europe and three from America. Mayor likes to act as a ‘resuscitation specialist’ rather than follower of fashion, and with the exception of Agnes Martin, his chosen artists are relatively unknown in this country.
The show’s title appears to suggest that the ‘nature of women’ is nature itself, whether referenced through colour (Anne Appleby’s richly pigmented squares drawn from irises, sweet peas and poplars) or natural materials, in the case of Sylvia Heider’s small metal reliefs set in squares of weathered timber and Marischa Burckhardt’s muted collages in un-primed linen and golden thread. It also suggests a preference for a more homely scale, for the making of patiently crafted and intimate worlds (the intricate biomorphism of Lisa Corinne Davis’s layered paintings, the fields of crosses in Aurelie Nemours’ small drawings), in contrast to the more assertive and headline grabbing work of their male counterparts. There is too a sense of hidden history, of work that is properly ‘Abstract’ being retrieved from alternative narratives, whether it be the African-American or Native-American heritage of Davis and Appleby or the influence on Burckhardt of Aboriginal art.
While this is interesting it is less obvious why these artists should be tied to a new narrative that locates them as either contemporaries or followers of Agnes Martin. Regardless of gender, she was as central to the development of minimalist painting as Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman and Ellsworth Kelly. And she is inevitably the stand out artist in this show, represented by a group of small works from the 50s and 70s executed in pencil with watercolour and acrylic washes that variously suggest water, bridges, tracks and deserts. It’s worth seeing this show for ‘Untitled 1958’ alone, a deliquescent square of blue bisected by four attenuated pencil lines. Though small in size, the scale is unmistakably American, simultaneously vast and austere. Her legacy is directly discernible only in the carefully arranged grids of Anne Appleby’s softly tinted square panels in warm pulsating greens and browns, especially the spare luminosity she captures in the double field arrangement of ‘Spring Iris’ 2013.
The Nature of Women is framed as a dialogue between America and Europe, and yet Martin’s pivotal presence would arguably be more arresting if viewed in the company of several female abstract artists working in the UK – by comparing it for example to the similarly Zen inspired minimalism of Edwina Leapman, or to the natural world captured in the rigorous geometry of recent work by Bridget Riley and Tess Jaray, or to the hard edged and seductively coloured surfaces of Estelle Thompson’s paintings and the taut spatial arrangements in the work of Tomma Abts. Such a grouping, if it were possible to achieve, would give more substance to the probing of the visual field in reductive terms by abstract women painters.
The Nature of Women: Appleby, Burckhardt, Corinne Davis, Heider, Nemours, Martin. Mayor Gallery, London, until 26 July 2013.