Visiting Researcher Report: Catherine Spencer

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Dr Catherine Spencer spent a month at the Institute investigating how artists used abstraction to navigate the complex, shifting politics of the 1970s and 1980s in Britain and the development of feminist and decolonial perspectives. 

In February 2019 Dr Catherine Spencer visited the Research Library to conduct preliminary secondary reading and research, as well as primary archival study, for a new project entitled Green Unpleasant Land: Art, Abstraction and the Politics of Location

Green Unpleasant Land: Art, Abstraction and the Politics of Location, which ultimately will result in a book-length study, investigates how artists working across a range of media including sculpture, photography, painting, performance and installation used abstraction to navigate the complex, shifting politics of the 1970s and 1980s in Britain, from industrial disputes, through to the conflict in Northern Ireland, and the development of feminist and decolonial perspectives.

The project seeks to address how abstraction, rather than being detached from contemporary socio-cultural concerns, provided a powerful way for artists including Rasheed Araeen (b. 1935), Prunella Clough (1919-99), Rita Donagh (b. 1939), Franki Raffles (1955-94) and Veronica Ryan (b. 1956) to grapple with issues of displacement, embodiment, atomisation, mediation and deindustrialisation.

Although this is a new project, it grows in part out of a longstanding interest in the paintings of Prunella Clough, which responded to factories, power stations and industrial sites. The Henry Moore Institute’s Archive of Sculptors’ Papers holds the notebooks and sketchbooks of the artist Ghisha Koenig (1921-93), whose sculptural practice was also concerned with the representation of labour, and with whom Clough made a number of site visits. During my Fellowship I was able to study her sketchbooks and conduct further research into her work through the Institute Research Library’s collection of pamphlets, catalogues and artists’ ephemera, which includes extensive press cuttings documenting her career. This provided a fascinating insight into concerns that she shared with Clough, and will be interwoven into a planned chapter on their work.

I also looked at the papers of Garth Evans (b. 1934), particularly in relation to his involvement in the Artist Placement Group, for which he conducted a placement at the British Steel Corporation, which I plan to feed into my consideration of artistic reactions to deindustrialisation. I spent the rest of my time at the Institute researching Araeen and Ryan in particular, as well as the wider artistic and cultural context of the 1970s and 80s, and was able to hear Ryan talk about her practice at Leeds Art Gallery during my Fellowship, which was extremely helpful, as well as seeing her in conversation on the Institute’s Senga Nengudi exhibition.

My time in Leeds provided a fantastic start to the project for which I am very grateful, and I look forward to following up ideas and references gathered as I research further.

Dr Catherine Spencer (School of Art History, University of St Andrews)

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