Originally built as an opulent home for Colonel George Wilson, Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Cumbria is a grand Georgian building that evokes a sense of quiet history and ‘Englishness’. It is in this setting that Fragility and Power, an exhibition of work by British sculptor, Elisabeth Frink, is hosted.
On entering the building, you are met by ‘Riace III’ (1986); a two-metre-high modern bronze statue of a naked man with a white painted face. Immediately at odds with its polite surroundings, this figure exudes powerful brutality. Yet the expression on the subject’s face is one that is more nuanced than the immediacy of the body; it appears detached as if it’s trying to contain a trauma.
This work was the last in a series of sculptures by Frink who had been inspired by the fifth century Riace Bronzes found in Italy in 1972. Like Frink’s series, these were large bronze statues of strong male figures. Likely to have been Greek mercenaries who fought in exchange for sacrificial offerings, they cut an idealised image of a glorious warrior – beautiful and elegant.
In contrast to this, Frink wanted to depict an idea of “what a fighting man may have looked like after going through battle … stark characters and obviously totally used to bloodshed and killing” (Frink, 1992).
With this in mind, I notice the light fixture hanging above ‘Riace III’ – a sort of gold-rimmed prism. By accident(?) of placement, the light appears to sit atop the sculpture’s head like an uneasy crown which the subject is not yet aware of; temporarily stupefied by war he is yet to embody his victory. These observations of juxtaposition, contrast and conflict set the tone for the rest of the exhibition that continues upstairs.
Frink, whose untimely death came in 1993 when she was just 62 years old, was known for a body work that focused on men, birds, dogs, horses and religious motifs, but very seldom any female forms. She was part of a post-war group of British sculptors, dubbed the Geometry of Fear School, which included Reg Butler, Bernard Meadows, Kenneth Armitage and Eduardo Paolozzi.
The exhibition is a retrospective that hones-in on the autobiographical aspect of Frink’s work. Looking at the artist in her own words, curator Keri Offord spent time transcribing a number of recordings and videos in which she speaks about her life and work. These transcriptions form the main part of the exhibition’s interpretation, giving it a deeper and more personal context.
The background for Frink’s childhood was the Second World War and its effect on her is present in her work, especially in her earliest pieces. She comments on her inclusion within the Geometry of Fear School, saying that it was a measure of convenience rather than a true grouping. Perhaps she was correct, but what you cannot get away from is her struggle to deal with the female identity; her work has a very ‘masculine’ feel to it and almost shies away from anything delicate in both theme and form.
Frink as good as ignores the female within her work. She is a woman who is very much in a man’s world. This element of her experience is exemplified in a memory she has of Reg Butler, who argued that “a woman couldn’t really be a sculptor, it was impossible… If she was a good sculptor, she wasn’t a good woman!” It must have annoyed Frink greatly to be included alongside Reg Butler as a contemporary.
Perhaps this sounds like I am doing Frink’s work down by pointing out her blind spots. Far from it, in fact it’s perhaps because of this ‘outsider’ status that she was able to tackle themes of power and fragility so well. I would say that she looked upon her male subjects in much the same way as she looked upon the animals in her work: always teetering on the edge of an understanding she would attempt to give to what she couldn’t quite grasp herself.
Frink’s work is truly affecting and brought to life with new perspective in this exhibition at Abbot Hall. Nearby, meanwhile, is Cross Lane Projects, a brand-new art space for Kendal. Housed in a former mint cake factory that looks a little like a commercial garage, its slick white walled interior feels more like the kind of artist-led endeavour you’d find on the fringes of a city rather than a rural tourist town.
Forming an accompaniment to the Frink show by contrast, the exhibition at Cross Lane Projects is called Female Trouble. It presents us with a series of prints by Dame Paula Rego that are shown alongside paintings by Rebecca Scott. The display here draws together themes from a very female narrative. Rego is known for her feminist perspective, creating work that deals with complexities of sexuality, the images she creates are often grotesque and disturbing. They are images that are both abrupt and subtle in their detail.
Scott’s work examines how women are objectified by the media. Her images are colourful oil paintings of magazine pages where the woman’s face has either been obscured by a painterly scribble or distorted by abstraction. Unfortunately, the subject matter here and its execution, seems a little jaded and obvious.
Just up the road from both galleries is the Brewery Arts Centre, which is a cinema, theatre, hostel and cafe. This hub of activity is always worth a nose-in. Currently on show in their cafe are photographs by Kate Gilman-Brundrett and some landscape paintings by Frances Winder, both artists who are local to Kendal.