Gillian Ayres is one of the most important and fascinating abstract artists of our times. There is a restless energy and boundless courage in her work, but also a calm, accepting wisdom. Spirited yellows, mesmerising blues, willful reds…Just like in my grandma’s stories, in Ayres’ paintings, colors have unforgettable personalities. They talk. They listen. They breathe.

– Elif Shafak, the most widely read female writer in Turkey

On the afternoon of July 30, 2017, renowned abstract artist Gillian Ayres’ first exhibition in China opened which is entitled as “Sailing off the Edge: Gillian Ayres’ Abstract Painting, 1979 to the present” it was unveiled at the CAFA Art Museum. With the support of British Council China, the exhibition was organized by the CAFA Art Museum and it comprises of a large number of large scale paintings (240cm x 240cm) from 1979 onwards, borrowed from private collections as well as the artist’s own studio.

Gillian Aryes at 87 years old, was feted in the west as one of the most important living abstract artists – the ‘Jackson Pollock of England’, as one recent art critic phrased it. She was shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize in 1989. A retrospective devoted to her work remains on view at the National Museum of Wales until September 2017 while a 400 page monograph on her work has just been published. Also, she has paintings in the collections of major museums including MOMA New York and Tate London, Museum of Modern Art in Brasilia, National Gallery of Australia and British Museum in London; her exhibitions have been widely held from Britain to Europe, from India to the USA. For this exhibition, Gillian Ayres herself has said: “for some time we have gone through a period where people quite like non-beautiful things. I do like beauty, absolutely. Titian, Rubens and Matisse all were in love with beauty. I like the idea that people can lose their feet looking at art – or even at nature. I love the idea that in our life we can be lifted by looking at art. My only regret is that I am not well enough to travel to Beijing or to see China”.

Ms. Carma Elliot, Country Director, British Council China, mentioned in her speech at the opening ceremony that “as museums around the world reflect on the importance of artists who are women, ‘Sailing off the Edge: Gillian Ayres’ Abstract Painting, 1979 to the present’ offers China an opportunity to see the complex and sensuous art of a woman who was the first female Head of Painting at a British art school, the only woman in the most important postwar exhibition of British art, ‘Situation’ of 1960 and who has invented and reinvented her art over sixty years”. Though a Chinese audience were not familiar with Gillian Ayres and her work, that was the mission of the British Council China as it contributes to cultural exchange and the promotion of art.

This is the third exhibition about abstract paintings organized by CAFA Art Museum since the Sean Scully Solo Exhibition was held in 2015 and John McLean’s Abstract Paintings which were held in 2016. Mr. Zhang Zikang, Director of CAFA ART Museum stated that this exhibition intended to give an overall and detailed presentation of Gillian Ayres and her creations. “Human society has never been short of art; however, the number of artists and artworks that can be included in any dominant account of art history is always limited. This does not only testify to the authority inscribed in art history but also reveals its limitations. To some extent, the mission of art museums is not only to confirm a settled art history, which comes to us from the past and has established itself as ‘common sense’, but it also provides other narratives which matter to us with our present concerns, opening up possibilities, forging paths to the future”. Therefore, he hopes through this presentation with more free and multiple means that this exhibition will welcome an audience to come close to experience the transcendental energy in the artist’s creation.

Gillian Ayres refuses to preset her creation or the simple interpretation of her image, but she would like to challenge and to change with her emotional expression. As described by Mr. Philip Dodd, one of the co-curators for this exhibition, “she has always been a rebel with a cause”, “whose abstraction is utterly distinctive – and yet draws on art history from Titian to Hokusai”. Gillian Ayres takes Nature as her pigments, and she has been persistently individualistic while she keeps challenging the edges. Her experience comes from the origin of life, and surrounding body and nature, she portrays “sublime” with her abundant emotions.

The reason that this exhibition chose 1979 as the starting point did not lie in that the year 1979 marks a new start of reform and opening-up in China but it was also in this year, Gillian Ayres visited Venice and she encountered the great Venetian painting of Tintoretto and Titian. As a female artist who lived through the years of the women’s movements, during that period she put paint directly on the canvas with her hands, with a perspective different from those of male artists when they portrayed women in Western art history, she presents the experience of the female body from the inside and “makes them profoundly tactile experiences” (Philip Dodd). Most recently, shapes have begun to appear in her paintings – and they become even more celebratory and joyous. Although the artist herself has not created any figurative painting, she uses the enthusiastic and vivid colors to convey her feelings, whether the dark black that represents the spacial universe or the cheery bright pink color, or the white color that represents a blank canvas she was influenced from the Chinese landscape painting. Mr. Wang Chunchen, one of the cu-curators of this exhibition and Head of Curatorial Research Department at CAFA Art Museum, talked about the significance of this exhibition, the discovery of a genuinely original artist and the presentation of multiple art expressions in the context of art museums which invite more and more visitors from all over the world that are even more meaningful than art itself, “what marks painters is that their most profound experience of life is to be found in the act of making art. “ Keep trying, keep challenge oneself, thus there’s no end to the edges of art…

Text by Sue Wang/CAFA ART INFO
Photo by Yang Yanyuan/CAFA ART INFO

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