Abigail McLellan was an acclaimed artist when she was diagnosed with MS in 1999. She continued to produce and refine her intense, vibrant art for the last ten years of her life, often using ingenious techniques to outwit the effects of her illness. She died at the age of 40. Nicole Fordham Hodges went to the Rebecca Hossack Gallery to see the retrospective of work on show until 1 December.
The private viewing was buzzing with people: from McLellan's closest family to those seeking a painting for the space above their fireplace. Cocktails were flowing. Even able bodied people were struggling to negotiate the particularly inaccessible red spiral staircase which links the three floors of the Rebecca Hossack Gallery. There was an alternative straight staircase out the back, but no lift.
In spite of lively chatter in the studio, the artwork drew me in. McLellan painted intensely coloured still-lives of simple, isolated forms. She liked flowers that pointed outwards, non-blousy shapes: alliums, closed tulips. Although she drew inspiration from Scottish art, her technique was highly personal. She painted with layers upon layers of acrylic paint. Her short stippled strokes built intense, singing colour. If I were a bee, I thought, I would bypass her flowers, and feed upon her rich, complicated backgrounds.
In 'Birds and Apples, 1997 Acrylic on Canvas' the leafless branches of a tree hold small apples and thin birds. There are generous spaces between branches, between apples, between birds. The background is sumptuous in layers of oranges, yellows and greens.
Space was McLellan's recurrent preoccupation. She repeatedly painted seafans, in different colours against different backgrounds. She painted the spaces in-between the intricate coral structures. McLellan said:
"I thought I've really got to make this as difficult as possible for myself by not painting the lines and just painting the in-between bits."
Painting the 'space in-between' gives an effect of exquisite intricacy. The fans hold together on their one delicate stem, an entwining of lines and spaces. I find them touching and meditative. They are far more than simply decorative.
McLellan's portraits were regularly exhibited in the BP Portrait awards at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition shows her shift from a realistic to a more stylised approach. In one of her earlier portraits 'The Lovers 1994 (Acrylic on Canvas)' the sitter is shown sleeping, un-posed, with mottled skin tone and the nitty-gritty of freckles.
Whereas in 'Rebecca and Matthew', 1998 (Acrylic on Canvas) the sitters make angular shapes, posed separately against a richly coloured background. They have thin crossed hands and held-back faces. A thin vase is in the space between them. It holds twiggy flowers with delicate outward pointing petals. The energy is somehow in the space the flowers point towards. I feel the presence of the sitters but I'd like to go further inside them. For me, too much is held back.
As McLellan's health deteriorated, she became unable to manage the intricate painting in-between seafans. She turned instead to sculpting them in wood, bronze or glass. She devised imaginative constructions with climbing gear to help her paint. Her style became more abstract with bolder forms. She employed assistants to help her apply her background colour. In 'Day Tulips' ( Acrylic on Canvas 2009) she used rectangular stencils to depict the bold stylised shapes of closed tulips. These have the nerve and verve of a tulip, only more so. There is a last bright creative flame in these stenciled works.
This private viewing was a happy, lively event. The exhibition is a fitting celebration of McLellan's intensely coloured, vibrant work, and of her creative persistence and adaptability. It is a great pity, and sadly inappropriate, that most of the gallery is inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs.
This free exhibition is on until December 1 at Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, 2a Conway Street, London Mondays – Saturdays 10a.m. - 6 p.m.
See more of McLellan's work at: www.r-h-g.co.uk/exhibitions/view/abigail_mclellan/278,0.html