Tuesday, October 14, 2014

'A retrospective exhibition of Agathe Sorel' at the Studio of Contemporary Art, 11th October 2014

Agathe Sorel's sculptures look like they've been carved out of space itself.  Headache inducing geometry meets diagrammatic precision in transparent perspex, a collection of objects that slide into new configurations as you move around them.  This is my kind of queasy psychedelia: organic plasticky bulges, ritualistic artefacts from insane civilisations and gigantic melting primal totems.

The retrospective takes place in her studio, which is nestled down a candlelit driveway in Forest Hill.  Filling this space is a literal ton (maybe more) of art in a huge variety of mediums; watercolours, bamboo structures, etchings and (my favourite) mindbending perspex sculptures.

Titania (1990)
So who is Agathe Sorel?  Born in Budapest in 1935 she began her art education in the Hungarian Academy of Applied Art, studying stage design, mosaic, frescoes and murals. Following the Revolution of 1956 she fled the country, finding refuge in London where she studied at the Camberwell School of Art.  At the tail end of the fifties she moves to Paris, studying at the legendary Atelier 17 studio under Stanley William Hayter, surrealist, abstract expressionist and widely considered one of the best printmakers of the 20th Century.

She spends the sixties in London, setting up a print workshop in Fulham with her husband Gabor Sitkey and teaching art at the Camberwell and Maidstone Colleges.  Whilst doing this her reputation grows, there solo shows across London and she receives the Churchill Fellowship to work in the US and Mexico.  I don't have space to list everything else in her biography, but suffice to say it consists of an impressive list of exhibitions at prominent institutions and participations in high profile collaborations.

In this retrospective 50 years of work is compressed into one space to dizzying effect. Agathe showed me around, starting with her etchings from 1958. The earliest of these have a chemically oozy quality, reminiscent of a river after a toxic leak upstream. These evolve into more ordered compositions, but ones that still bear the fingerprints of disorder; the works punctuated by organic smears and 'trash' materials like coffee grounds.

Woman in Waves (1989)
As neat as these are, for me they're a preamble to her sculptural work.  The sight of all these pieces in one room makes me feel like I'm in the prop room for an avant-garde science fiction movie.  These could be furniture for an advanced alien civilisation, the patterns, shapes and curves suggesting some bizarre logic that our puny human minds cannot possibly comprehend.   

One of Agathe's prior exhibitions was titled 'Engravings in Space' - a perfect description of what she does.  One thing I appreciated very quickly is that these pieces morph and transform depending on your position relative to them.  I've always held that one mark of a good sculpture is its use of 3D space or more simply, the harder it is to photograph, the better the use of form.

Oyster (1990)
Agathe's sculptures are next to impossible to capture well in a photograph.  Lets take Oyster as just one example.  In the concave curves of the upper piece there's an anatomical roughness, the bulging shape and organic lines reminiscent of an occipital bone. The structure underneath looks altar like; the positioning of the objects upon a curved perspex shelf placed in a way that suggests ritual precision.  Here religious adoration collides with skullish skeletal reality, intangible spirituality shackled to blood, bone and tissue.  In a photograph this is difficult to communicate, but in 3D space it springs to life, inviting the viewer to explore the shapes.

A similar entanglemet is present in the physics influenced Grotto for Torus. Perhaps influenced by M.C. Escher, Agathe has realised Oscar Reutersv√§rd's Penrose Triangle aka 'the impossible triangle'.  Staring at the piece gradually turns your brain to plasticine as you try to fit the impossibly Euclidean pieces into order.  The impossible triangle has been created before, but generally relies on an illusion of perspective to work. Agathe uses her own illusion, the thin, curved perspex making the design into a mirage that floast before our eyes.  These allusions to physics continue in the other elements of the sculpture; the torus design reflecting theories of the shape of the universe, and the cubes, cylinders and spheres the building blocks of objects.

Macho the Cock (1985)
But it's the insanely complex Macho the Cock that's my favourite, despite (or perhaps because) it's the one I understand least.  A knot of burnt sunset hues in perspex and metal, jumbled up beyond comprehension - looking at this makes me feel like a dog trying to understand the controls of a jet fighter - I don't even know where to start.  This is an invigorating brand of confusion, layers of meaning being stripped away until we're forced to grapple with naked geometry, colour and form. 

There's so much to see here - I've not scratched the surface (or the even the surface of the surface) in this article.  This isn't a particularly small gallery, but every conceivable space is home to work that positively throbs with intelligence and skill. 

Binding it all together is the art of engraving. I see this repeated technique as Agathe suffering the torture of having an itch she can't scratch.  Her itch is in reality and by the act of engraving she scratches away at the world around her through canvas, metal and perspex, stamping her mark onto space itself.

'A retrospective exhibition of Agathe Sorel' is at the Studio of Contemporary Art, Dorrell Hall, 43 London Road, SE23 3TY until 12 November 2014.  Viewing by appointment (sandra@sandrahiggins.com). 

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