Arts Review


Agatha Sorel
Intaglio Printmaker, Islington

It is the printmaker in her that appears to dominate. I do not mean that the prints are better than the sculptures, but rather that the compulsive engraver that she is cannot but do violence to the surface of her sculptures. One might describe the sculptures as 'engravings in space', which is the name given to an earlier Sorel exhibition. This has the advantage of suggesting how the engravings might float before our eyes rather than be confined to a flat surface. Yet we would do better to think of the engravings on the sculptures as tattoos, which after all are probably the oldest kind of engravings of all and like the 'oldest profession', are as raunchy and unrespectable.

What makes our hackles rise with Sorel's sculptural tattoos is not, of course, the threat of moral turpitude but the fear of aesthetic decadence. It is this fear that prevents restorers froin returning classical sculptures to their former painted glories and makes us cling to the purity of sculptural form. It is also a fear that the tattoo reduces the human form into a rippling display board and turns the messenger into the message.

Her Macho The Cock (watercolour, print and sculpture) show us how touchy we are over our own bodily, and particularly sexual, display. For though we are quite willing to arrange our appearance for sexual purposes, we stop short at turning ourselves into a collection of sexual emblems.

In the watercolour, we see a representation of the frightful Macho standing on his motor bike, his hackles risen less out of indignation, more in expectation of pleasure. In the print, it is still possible to make out a transformed representation of Macho and the bike, the hackles, small areas of red that fit decorously into the overall composition. As soon as they appear in the sculptures as red perspex engraved fragments, their status is changed from a trace, albeit of Macho's virile appendage, to a sexual badge and what started of in the watercolours as part of a potent messenger ends in the sculpture as a pathetic message of sexual conquest.

Changes in status from messenger to message and from sexual posture to sexual emblem mark out some of the emotional content of Sorel's work, but such changes are brought about by what Max Ernst called "the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance upon a plane which apparently does not suit them." Though Ernst was writing about collage, his words might equally apply to the engraving and three-dimensional forms in Sorel's sculpture and to the colour and line in her prints.

In her Wise And Foolish Virgin, for instance, we have two elegantly juxtaposed coloured figures, one yellow the other blue. They are required to share the same plane with a group of scrawled lines out of which emerges a sexually ferocious hermaphrodite with what appears to be a serrated penis protruding from his/her vagina.

Yet this is not the theatre of abstract expressionism where, in Clement Greenberg's description, the action takes place on the curtain rather than on the stage beyond. It is Andre Masson's 'psychic menagerie' in which images of distinctive types are brought forward into our consciousness, to fight it out rather than simmer beneath the surface, drawing or sculpture. (Oct 25 - Nov 24 See colour illustration)

Philip Hughes