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    Joyfully Precarious
by David Cohen
 
     
 
Lady in a Niche
1972
 
Privacy Plots III
1972
 
Small Bending Acrobat
1987
 
Tableau
1998
 
Head of the Stairs
1998
 
Shellwall
1998
 
Ivor Abrahams is a sculptor of protean creativity, a pioneer since the 1960s of the use of wacky materials, a prolific and inventive printmaker. A distinctive presence on the British scene, his closest peer among Americans would probably be Jim Dine: they have both played in a Pop kind of way with Greco-Roman statuary. Abrahams has a much more idiosyncratic touch, though, which is fiddly, playful, at his best quite goofy. He is a grand master of the tacky sublime.

Another American who springs to mind, just to establish bearings, is Richard Artschwager: they share a career trajectory from artisan to fine artist, timed in each case to coincide with the emergence of Pop. Abrahams originally followed his father into the window dresser's trade, and there is often an elegant wit to his proscenium-framed improvisations, but he is equally the scion of a high academic tradition.

He studied with German classicist Carel Vogel at the Camberwell School, London, and was apprenticed at the Fiorini bronze foundry. An energetic tension between artifice and finesse and a dichotomy of nonchalance and composure both point to this mixed background, this transgressing of boundaries between high and low.

In the late 1960s and '70s he got hooked on the theme of gardens, making sculptures, installations and prints in resins, latex and -- his favorite exquisitely gruesome material -- flock. With humor and poignancy, these works explore the British obsession with gardens, especially as it manifests lower down on the class ladder. His art reveled in the contradictions of the proletarian backyard, in the way a once aristocratic language of ornamentation got mangled in the social transition. His vision, however, never has the harshness of social satire; it's exercised by a sense of bathos, more than critique or ridicule. This gives the work an aura of mystery, of participation in the ambivalence and artifice it explores.

Personal circumstances led him away from his earlier explorations and back to the figure -- real figures, that is, not the mere statuary he had been involved with. Teaching life drawing to a patron activated a fascination with the figure in motion, while chronic asthma forced him to banish flock and resins from the studio. He was highly successful with his bronze nymphs and naiads, which weren't offered tongue-in-cheek as earlier admirers would have expected.

That was in the '80s. With some startling results, he now seems to be synthesizing his earlier preoccupation with space, texture and ornamentation with what he has learned of the body.

Abrahams' newest works are cutouts in laminated card, which show the artist at his awkward, quirky, inventive best. In the "Head of the Stairs" series, the card is montaged with his own vertiginous photos of stairwells. The card is then carved and constructed into vaguely anthropomorphic shapes, mostly heads and shoulders. The viewer's gaze is sucked into a receding vortex of the images, while the juxtaposition of planes pushes the gaze back again. There is something joyfully precarious about these pieces, poised as they are between the ephemeral and the monumental.

Abrahams has been the subject recently of three simultaneous exhibitions in London. A small print retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts is nicely timed (with its garden theme) to coincide with their Monet blockbuster. The Mayor Gallery presented a packed display of new sculptures and maquettes, and Ian Mackenzie is showing Abrahams' giclé Isis prints.


DAVID COHEN is a London-based art historian and writer.