This will be the most comprehensive survey to date of work by British artist Rita Donagh. It begins with a selection of early paintings, some of which were made at the Newcastle School of Art. Subsequent bodies of work (from c.1964), each centred on a particular theme, constitute an extraordinary combination of personal and political concerns. Donagh’s most recent project, for example, takes the Midlands’ Black Country as its subject, a place significant not only as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, but also as her birthplace.
The early paintings, striking for their maturity and a distinct pop-ism, anticipate much of what characterises Donagh’s later work. Her choice and treatment of her subject matter is very deliberate, forms are carefully delineated, stylised as certain contours and other features are enhanced, while superfluous details are suppressed.
Donagh’s work became increasingly conceptual through the 1960s and 1970s. Her first major project was Figure Compositions, consisting of a number of pieces in various media, based on a photograph published by Life magazine in 1964. An image of a group of fashionable young people on 42nd Street, New York, was, as the artist puts it, “subjected to a process of transformation”, and combined with various references to Andy Warhol. There are gouache silhouettes, details of figure outlines, tightly cropped on graph paper, “figure studies” which are extreme distillations of the source material and, finally, Contour, an elegant assemblage of canvas, silk screen and an illuminated argon tube. The whole work thus exists not as a self-contained finished piece, but rather as an amalgam of studies, drawings, collages and so on, to convey the fragmentary nature of all human experience. It is as if we are witnessing the artist thinking aloud, attempting to make the best possible sense of things.
For the past forty years Rita Donagh has been consistently inventive, and very influential, especially through her teaching. On the other hand, arguably her work has not been seen often enough, especially in recent years, with the prominence it deserves. This exhibition therefore could not be more timely.