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Rebecca Salter, the first woman to be elected president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2019, has gone under the radar as an artist. She gets a key platform, however, with her first institutional solo show in the UK running at Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury in Suffolk, UK, featuring works from the 1980s to today (until 10 March 2024).

Salter studied ceramics at Bristol Polytechnic and later lived in Japan from 1979 to 1985, taking up a research scholarship at Kyoto City University of the Arts, where she studied woodblock painting with professor Kurosaki Akira. “In subsequent decades, her work has consistently reflected on the meanings carried by Japanese mark-making and materials,” says a project statement.

The exhibition at Gainsborough’s House, co-curated by the writer Thomas Marks, is divided into two rooms. In the Sudbury Gallery, pieces on show reflect the breadth of Salter’s mixed-media techniques, with works such as Untitled AG26 (2014) illustrating the artist’s stylistic innovations (she made the work by burning small marks on the surface). Another work Untitled JC11 (2022)—a diptych made of mixed media on muslin—draws the viewer in, creating an illusion of depth.

“There is a sort of meditative process in the mark making and time it takes to make almost any of these works to scale. The way in which doing things that are similar but different again and again across the surfaces… is a way almost of recording the time of the making of the work,” Marks said during a press briefing.

“You can see thousands of individual ink dots [in works such as Untitled JB26, 2022] that Rebecca has made across half of the canvas. When you see the muslin attached on top of the surface, every single cross of thread has moved up or down, creating a time signature and surface to engage with.”

In the David Pike Drawing Gallery, the organisers have paired Salter’s works with drawings and prints from the permanent collection. A clever pairing brings together Thomas Gainsborough’s Study of a Tree (around 1770) and Salter’s 2017-10 (2017) while a tenebrous print by Rembrandt, The Flight into Egypt (1651), is displayed alongside Salter’s dark and deep-set B12 (1983).

Marks points out that while Salter and Gainsborough are not necessarily an obvious fit there are qualities that connect them. “There is Gainsborough’s figuration and Rebecca’s abstraction but they do intersect on care for materials; Gainsborough was [for instance] obsessed with the paper he would get from his suppliers. This could be a way to open up perspectives on historical work and also modes of entry into Rebecca’s work. All of the different pairings… somehow relate to materiality, composition or mark making.”

Marks also discussed Salter’s watercolour made in 1998, Shibam, Yemen (1998) shown alongside 18th-century artist George Frost’s Two Men with a Barrel (unknown date). “[These works prompt] thinking about blocks of colour and the swiftness and confidence to lay down that watercolour, which you can’t turn back once you’ve made the mark.” As president of the Royal Academy, Salter is also by association president of Gainsborough’s House.

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