Towner Eastbourne presents a series of new works by Melissa Gordon

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Towner Eastbourne presents a series of new works by Melissa Gordon
Margaret Mellis, Cloud Cuckoo Land, 1991.

EASTBOURNE.- Towner Eastbourne is presenting a series of new works by Melissa Gordon. The presentation, Liquid Gestures, is the largest institutional exhibition of work by the artist to date. Formed of a series of new paintings and installation works, it invites us to reconsider the influence of women artists whose work has been eclipsed in art historical prose.

Gordon is a British and American artist based in Brussels whose practice, as a painter, writer, and organiser, is concerned with the body, gesture, and painting through the lens of feminism. Liquid Gestures features new large-scale paintings that further her examination of modern art histories, ideas of authorship, and the appropriation of certain ‘gestures’.

In Liquid Gestures, Gordon asks us to consider the significance and influence of artists such as Ukrainian-American Abstract Expressionist Janet Sobel in relation to drip painting and Dada artist and poet Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, in relation to the readymade. Their contributions to art history have been overlooked in a culture of gender inequality that is noticeably persistent even today: Sobel being an artist to use the drip painting technique which directly influenced Jackson Pollock and von Freytag-Loringhoven thought by some to be the original author of Marcel Duchamp's famous readymade, The Fountain.

This is explored by Gordon via a new body of paintings titled Female Readymades, which are displayed on a complex interior of displaced architectural elements, designed specifically for the exhibition. On this site-specific structure, Gordon inserts and overlaps the architecture of the studios of Sobel and von Freitag Loringhoven, crafting them into temporary metal stud structures. The spaces of these two women who may have been instrumental in two of the 20th century ‘seminal’ art historical gestures - the readymade and the drip - interrupt the gallery spaces at Towner in an attempt to show the instability, liquidity, and moveability of gesture, through time and between artworks.

In the paintings, motifs such as a grid, mesh or chain-link fence, are silk-screened directly onto the canvas, creating a framework that plays host to an array of intriguing references. Photographs and texts are then painted or printed onto the surface, while outlines and silhouettes of painting tools, clothing, and domestic objects slip over and under colourful swathes of paint. Traversing between figuration and abstraction, brushstrokes and pools of colour have been repainted and reproduced from the incidental mark-making on Gordon’s studio wall with an almost forensic examination of gesture.

“The exhibition at Towner Eastbourne is an opportunity to work on two ambitious challenges for my work: to showcase the ‘readymade’ nature of the paintings by developing the notion of gravity and the role of mechanical devices on the paintings such as an LCD screen. Also, this is a chance to build a specific architecture on which to hang the works, and to incorporate a number of architectural elements: walls, wallpaper, tapestries, to create a fluid environment where the paintings merge with the architecture,” says the artist.

The exhibition has been curated by Noelle Collins, Exhibitions and Offsite Curator, Towner Eastbourne.

Born in 1914, in China, Margaret Mellis and her family returned to Scotland soon after her birth. She studied at Edinburgh College of Art, where taught by SJ Peploe and WG Gillies, and learnt alongside Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and William Gear. In 1933, she went to Paris to study under André Lhote, followed by another visit in 1937. In between, in 1936, she met Adrian Stokes; the couple married in 1938. Together, they moved to St Ives, Cornwall, arguably heralding the next wave of artists to the area, with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, and Roger Hilton. Before this, she studied for a time at the Euston Road School, before fleeing to Cornwall following the outbreak of war. This move to St Ives coincided with Mellis exploring collage and relief. Created from found materials and paper, these collages were exhibited in New Movements in Art,at the London Museum in 1942. In 1946, following her divorce from Stokes, Mellis met the artist Francis Davison, with whom she moved to London, and then to Cap d’Antibes, in 1947. They married in 1948, and relocated to Walberswick, and later Syleham, Norfolk, in 1950, and then to Suffolk. For much of this time, though both continued to create artworks, neither was widely exhibited in London - they were geographically and, at times, conceptually, distant from life in the capital. This began to change, after Mellis embarked upon a series of large abstract paintings known as 'colour structures'. These were exhibited in London, with solo shows at Grabowski Gallery, in 1969, and then at Basil Jacobs Gallery, in 1972. From both shows, Mellis sold work to important public collections; the Government Art Collection bought a painting from the Basil Jacobs show, in 1972, while a painting had earlier been purchased by the Arts Council of Great Britain, in 1969.

In 1978, Mellis started creating driftwood reliefs, which she found while walking along the local coast at Southwold, and likened the creative process to Surrealist automatism. In the mid-'80s, Mellis was included in several high-profile exhibitions, including the important survey show of St Ives 1939-64, staged at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1985, and later Scottish Art since 1900, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. In 1987, the Redfern Gallery staged a retrospective exhibition, from which the Tate and Arts Council bought recent driftwood refliefs. The exhibition was also attended by a young Damien Hirst; intrigued by the driftwood constructions in particular, Hirst wrote to the artist, and was invited to visit Mellis in Southwold, forming a lasting friendship. Mellis was part of the Tate St Ives' inaugural exhibition in 1993, and was the subject of a retrospective that opened at City Art Centre, Edinburgh, and toured the UK, in 1997. Recent exhibitions include Modern Scottish Women 1885-1965, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and a joint-show with Damien Hirst at Pier Arts Centre, Orkney. In 2018, her work featured in an exhibition inspired by Virginia Woolf and her writings, at Tate St Ives.

The Redfern Gallery represents the Margaret Mellis estate.

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