Abigail Lane’s work, often tinged with fantasy, magic, and the macabre, draws on a profound interest in the traces left by humans. One of the original Young British Artists, she participated in the storied 1988 warehouse show “Freeze,” but since 2007 she has lived in the countryside and avoided London’s art circuit. “Heads & Tails” (on view through September 30, 2023), her first U.K. solo exhibition in 20 years, demonstrates that she has lost none of her inventiveness.
The typically subversive title refers to the classic choice of the coin flip, but “and” allows for plural outcomes. It also introduces the theme of magic—Lane has always conjured the unexpected from the ordinary—and implicitly warns you to be on your toes. (Indeed, a pair of disembodied feet on their toes balancing on a fleshy blob graces the first-floor landing.)
Such puns abound in this rich show. In a cell-like, felt-lined room, framed textiles embroidered with singing garden birds hang on the walls, and the sound of chirping fills the air. But sirens and street noise make clear that this is a recording, and one notices that the birds are blind and held behind bars. Unsurprisingly, the “Doing Time” series was made during the Covid lockdown. Close inspection reveals that the birds’ plumage seems to be coming undone. These lyrical tangles resist stasis, lending life and movement.
In the stairwell, a vitrine displays two bricks cast in house dust and plaster bearing the words “Re-make” and “Re-model,” which is what Lane has done with this show—repurposing old works and household objects using materials readily at hand like dust, yarn, and fabric. Hanging inside a cupboard, a wool sweater proclaims “Escape Artist.” A statement of intent or of being?
Lane draws the visitor up two flights of stairs with embroidered works displaying limbs and a vitrine of playful miscellanea like dice made of dust. A dim corridor with more caged birds opens to an airy gallery of fragmented female forms. Visceral red silhouettes of heads and limbs sewn on calico tumble across the walls, their dangling threads prompting associations with (menstrual) blood and wounds, or perhaps the life force itself.
Freestanding sculptures inspired by the magician’s illusion of sawing a woman into thirds—the beguiling “Zig Zag Lady” series—dominate the space. In each work, the contents of the three stacked boxes (representing the upper, middle, and lower body) lend a distinct personality. The boxes in Zig Zag Lady (Has been) (2022), from top to bottom, hold an unnerving eye on a wire, a pair of cast-dust arms, and an embroidered black pubic triangle peeking out from a blue curtain skirt. Round the back, black heels in fishnet tights slung over a stretcher bar suggest the morning after a big night. Such sauciness is absent from Zig Zag Lady (Country Life) (2023), whose headless torso sports an unraveling wool jumper and a bleeding resin nipple. In a Magritte-esque flourish, the nest that forms her neck contains eggs that are only visible in the box’s mirrored top. Below, an appropriated painting of a waterfall flows down to the lowest box, which holds a pair of waxy feet fused with Wellington boots and two eyes on acorn stalks—a juxtaposition that forces one of many double takes in the show.
Lane shakes up this feminine, domestic landscape, which feels rooted in a lineage of artists such as Rosemarie Trockel, Louise Bourgeois, and Nicola L, through the insertion of works by three male artists. Zig Zag Lady (Has been) contains a spent match—in fact, a signed Gavin Turk bronze. Matthew Weir’s blood drawing Wound Man (2021) disrupts Lane’s grid of “dripping” red embroidered works. Weir’s drawing, which recalls Saint Sebastian, underscores the religious theatricality running through the show, from relic-like body parts and bloody effusions to Crucifixion (2020), an abbreviated triptych composed of two embroidered, thread-trailing black hands set above a pubis. But nature also loom large in this green-painted room, where the tree nymphs in a Glenn Brown drawing seemingly gaze toward two (bronze) mounds of dirt on the floor—as if reminding us where we are headed.
The works in “Heads & Tails” create an intricate lattice of associations and echoes that reverberate throughout The Art Station’s labyrinthine building. Time is needed to uncover and savor the myriad imaginative details and surprises. Surrealism meets magic realism, the circus meets the baroque. In one vignette, a wizardly staff stands beside a fabric panel showing legs teetering on a fraying tightrope: A reference to the balancing act of life? Lane leaves interpretations open, while effecting a mischievous reversal of the order of things. Bodies are remade from house dust. Eventually we will return to dust, with luck cartwheeling as we go.