Works by the late Serbian artist Olga Jevrić (1922–2014) are rarely exhibited outside her homeland, so this first solo show in London of 28 sculptures, in conjunction with a second show at Handel Street Projects (on view through October 31), offered something of a treasure trove. The PEER exhibition spanned some 50 years, beginning in the mid-1950s when Jevrić turned away from figuration. Bucking Soviet-style Socialist Realism, she created abstract structures consisting of bulky forms that seem to float in space, held by nails or metal rods, which serve both to support and to trap. These works made her a pioneer in Yugoslavia as she developed her own vocabulary through the juxtaposition of mass and void, solidity and weightlessness, lines and curves.
Largely made from industrial materials such as cement, ferric oxide, and iron, Jevrić’s sculptures have a brutality and roughness that reflect her formative period in the aftermath of World War II. She described her work as influenced by “war, uncertainty, the slaughter of innocent people, social upheavals, and disorder of all social norms” and cited as further inspiration medieval tombstones called stecci found throughout the Balkans. The show included several small-scale pieces built in the 1950s as proposals for public memorials. Although never realized—perhaps they were deemed too abstract—they display a vigor often lost in large monuments and are decidedly not bereft of emotion. Three Elements III (1956), for example, resembles an arching figure pierced by stakes, while Proposal for a Monument. Zev (1958) balances liberation and restraint in perfect tension, its angled slab straining skyward but pinned in place by thin rods. This delicate equilibrium recurs throughout Jevrić’s oeuvre; it’s evident in three works from the “Articulation of Space” series, which range in date from 1956 to 1981, and in later pieces that dispense with the metal rods, such as Small Intersection Ib (1985/2001) in which two weathered horizontal slabs balance seemingly unsupported against a vertical block. Jevrić considered her sculptures, with their recesses, contours, and pockmarked surfaces, as a dialogue between light and darkness. “Light here is both a physical and metaphysical substance; it provides the possibility for discovery and revelation,” she stated in a 1982 Belgrade TV film.
If Jevrić was among the first to embrace abstraction in Yugoslavia, she was nonetheless au courant with ideas circulating among European Modernists, and she made study trips throughout Europe. An exhibition of Henry Moore traveled to Belgrade, Zagreb, and Ljubljana in 1955, and one might find parallels between Jevrić’s Complementary Forms (1956/7) and his amorphous relational compositions. Likewise, the loom-like Weaving through Space (1969/78) and the small sprayed iron Shielded Shape I (Harp)(1956) call to mind the string works of Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, who were similarly concerned with solidity and space, yet Jevrić eschewed the refined finish of their works. Her materials evoke organic matter such as stone, wood, and bone, and her heavy, textured forms seem to draw a thread back to prehistoric epochs, conjuring ancient megaliths or the gigantic vertebrae of extinct mammals, as in The Form in Origination Ia (1964).
During Jevrić’s lifetime, this distinctive language earned her renown at home and, to a lesser extent, internationally. She represented Yugoslavia at the 1958 Venice Biennale, and in 1966 she spent a year in America on a Ford Foundation Fellowship. The fact that British sculptors Richard Deacon and Phyllida Barlow (whose rough and ready sculptures bear formal affinities with Jevrić’s) were involved in the selection and curation of works (on loan from Belgrade institutions) testifies to her standing among cognoscenti. The installation itself amounted to an impressive sleight of hand, achieving an illusion of spaciousness beyond the size of the nonprofit gallery’s two rooms while retaining a sense of intimacy. Works of varying scale were given room to breathe, which allowed viewers the chance to experience Jevrić’s elemental poetry of form and materials. This show, which one hopes will be the first of many, made a strong claim for revisiting the powerful sculptures of an overlooked female Modernist.