SOPHIE ABBOTT: Shoreline
Phoenix Art Space, Brighton
2 – 25 July 2021
Immersed in the ocean, when varying degrees of coldness have been adjusted to, and when relieved of the weight of one’s body to counter the substance of our normally earthbound physicality, swimming in or just floating in the sea must be a wonderful place to be. Or if strolling on the promenade, in leisure time or between tasks and expectations from work or family, time and space can merge with the visible if we allow it to. Such experiences are freely available, though we may need reminding of this from time to time. Sophie Abbott’s current show, Shoreline, at Phoenix Art Space does just this.
On my third visit in as many days I sat in the gallery and felt calmed after an intensive few weeks spent preparing for and invigilating other exhibitions. This was a ‘time out’ experience that induced an unexpected ‘time in’. On my first two visits, when my mind was on other matters, I wondered if there was too much on display – albeit out of shear enthusiasm from the artist and her assistants to create a visual feast for the increasing number of visitors now able to attend exhibitions.
In the main Window Gallery space thirteen paintings are displayed on four white walls. Clusters of work, two, three or four paintings at a time, are punctuated at even intervals by the double doors that lead into the teaching spaces. Yet all of these paintings considered together create an immersive corridor to move along, prompting a viewer to switch back and forth. It could well be too busy a hang for some but, for me, maxes out to provide just the right impact to enable individual canvases to be contemplated, or to experience the whole frieze affect. But this is mere stocktaking.
Sitting down at the central point of the corridor I found my gaze shifting from what was immediately in front of me to a work I had only notionally glanced at as I entered the show from the coffee shop (one of two entrances). Some literal perspective was pulling me in to ‘Pink Sunrise’. Colour-wise this work is the odd one out and a distinctive placement on a dark grey wall emphasises some kind of divergence. On the other hand the rising sun represents the generally considered start of day and so the show thematically begins here.
The all-over scan might be the way the viewer steps into most paintings but for this work I suspect that a relatively small, orange oval shape placed in the bottom right-hand section almost instantly commands a roving eye. I wondered if unconsciously and symbolically this was someone special in the crowd. The intensity of colour in relation to the rest of the composition is certainly strong. But it’s a momentary focal point from the experience of seeing as a larger but fuzzier orb mirrored on the left-hand side repeats the shape as if to provide balance. Amongst the eponymous pinks in this sunrise are crimsons and blues as well as larger but softer clouds of pink and orange in all areas. These vie for attention without recourse to hierarchy of size or saturation. The small orange shape that first stood out is a punctum of sorts (though Barthes identified this phenomenon in photography of course) as there is a subtle aura of subjectivity suggested by the abstract qualities of the work as a whole. Yet step back or shift your head around if you stay close by and this orange blob of delicious orange is subsumed into the whole composition and other, initially less noticeable, colour shapes stand out too. Visually, the viewer could be stilled by one shape or by the alloverness of the work. The phenomenology of sight perception can contradictorily oscillate between the gaze and the focus.
There’s often a feeling of joy in Abbott’s painting, typically communicated through an exuberance of colour and a painterly glee. But it’s also the handling of the paint and an acceptance of its simple qualities of thickened or thinned; intermixed or stand alone; opaque or transparent; forceful or anonymous that lends a sophistication that can be overlooked if the decorative interior design feel is given too much credence. Although liquidised enough to avoid a literal heaviness the subject matter is never forced in her work. But there is often an everyday profundity at play.
In the lengthy Window Gallery installation the colour scheme is markedly, though not completely, different from ‘Pink Sunrise’. Here we engage with watery blue-greens and more ultramarine sky-blues, often contrasted with pinks and oranges. Fairly strong hues shift to mixes with white (sometimes approaching chalkiness but not too much to kill the colour effect). This fine-tuning of colour adjusts the surface tensions and contributes to the visual and physical layers, including flattened labyrinths of atmospheric form.
Controlled drips of paint – never over indulged in, but enough to remind the viewer of gravity (which even makes water earthbound) – plus seemingly independent colour patches form islands and archipelagos that ultimately add up to fully integrated and holistic arenas. Abstract reality is developed from the external environment, along and within the shoreline, with the potential for a frame of mind that, arguably, only visual abstraction and music can recreate. The viewer is invited to enter this (literal) acrylic/canvas space as an immersive experience. The result is an elegant state of grace.
Phoenix Art Space – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org/Events/sophie-abbott-shoreline/
Sophie Abbott website – https://sophieabbott.co.uk
Note: Approach the exhibition from the main entrance to the Phoenix Art Space for an extra painting from Sophie Abbott in the Plein Air exhibition in which her work is accompanied by works from fellow studio members Jane Campling and Julian Vilarrubi.