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Back in the brutal old days of rampant patriarchy, women who made art often gave it up after they married an artist. Gradually, though, this gruesome tradition has been overturned. Even if their partners enjoy immense reputations, women today would never dream of abandoning their own art and lapsing into uncomplaining domesticity.

Sheila Girling is just such a painter. Although married to Anthony Caro since 1949, when they met as fellow students at the Royal Academy Schools, she has succeeded in pursuing her own independent career. Both her parents were artists, and their example may well have helped to sustain her own momentum. So has her marriage. To this day, Girling’s north London studio is very close to her husband’s far larger premises, and they are nourished by criticising each other’s work-in-progress.

But they usually exhibit separately, as if to underline their own identities. Girling’s most recent solo show was held last year in Valencia, and Tate Britain’s retrospective survey of Caro’s prolific career (an exhibition dedicated to his wife) was staged a year earlier. Maybe that is why they have now agreed, for the first time in a decade, to display their work together. The invitation came from the New Art Centre at Roche Court, near Salisbury. And it turns out to be an ideal setting for both artists. Caro is exhibiting “Flats”, a major sequence of steel sculptures scattered with well-judged panache across the expansive grounds. And Girling’s paintings are installed in the gallery adjoining the house, where they can be seen close-to as well as from a distance through the glass walls.

At first, the impact of these shows stresses their singularity as artists. Girling’s work, relying on a freely executed combination of acrylic and collage, seems to rejoice above all in the sensuousness of colour. But Caro’s pieces are restricted to the dour texture of rusted steel, far more sober in feeling than his painted metal work which revolutionised British sculpture during the 1960s. Unafraid of brightness, and impelled by his openly declared need to “make it look fresh and new”, Caro was then at his most exuberant. Even the largest pieces seemed strangely weightless, so by the time he began making the “Flats” series in 1974 Caro felt ready for a change. Working now at the York Steel Company in Toronto, he started bending, slicing, welding and bolting sheets of steel far heavier and thicker than the material deployed in his previous sculpture. The mobile cranes and other handling equipment at York Steel were a revelation, encouraging him to develop a more spontaneous way of working. He spent no more than four days on even the largest of these titanic pieces, and his sense of dynamism can still be felt in the 12 sculptures now asserting their presence at the New Art Centre.

They have a great sense of unforced bravado, whether reinforcing the horizontal lie of the land they occupy or thrusting up in defiant diagonals towards the immensity of the Wiltshire sky. For all their undoubted monumentality and weight, they look vulnerable: Caro makes us aware of the slender beams propping them up, and some appear on the verge of disintegration. Hence the tension enlivening even the bulkiest of these works, each given generous space to breathe in the fertile acres around Roche Court. Pushed too close together, the “Flats” might have become oppressive. But here, they come into their own as lean, precariously balanced yet stubborn proclamations of Caro’s inventiveness.

Moving towards the gallery where Girling’s images hang, we soon become conscious, through the sensuous shimmer of her colours, that architectural references abound. “Way Through”, the most forceful exhibit in the main room, is dominated by a large rectangular form immediately suggestive of a window. On the left, a similar shape appears to be falling off or opening outwards.

The ambiguity is surely deliberate, for Girling pushes her work to the very edge of abstraction. She also allows “Way Through” to thrust out towards us at its base. Welcoming rather than aggressive, this projecting element acts as an invitation to enter the imaginative space conjured by her collage and paint.

Once our eyes get inside Girling’s work, we discover how battered and weathered their surfaces really are. As for the moods explored here, they range from the menacing to the celebratory. “Days Like These”, executed in 1998, appears daunted by the advent of implacable grey bands threatening to extinguish a luminous centre. “Evening Shadow” is still more ominous, even if a tall doorway manages to counter the surrounding gloom with a blaze of bleached brightness. Elsewhere, though, Girling allows herself to indulge in hope. One of the largest and most impressive paintings is called “Light at the End”. For the most part, it seems shrouded in darkness. Yet renegade elements insist on enlivening the gloom with festive hints, and right at the centre streaks of life-affirming colour pierce the nocturnal shadows.

Girling is preoccupied by the clash between these emotional extremes, and she has no intention of resorting to facile optimism in any of her thickly layered canvases. “Lost in Silence” is a particularly suspenseful work: everything, including the window-like form apparently looking out at a night sky beyond, seems held in powerful suspense. This air of expectancy runs through Girling’s entire show, ensuring that it holds our attention. The mood of her paintings cannot easily be pinned down: they are complex, forever oscillating between exuberance and intimations of mortality.

The title of one canvas, “Daylight Comes”, might suggest that all her misgivings are about to be ousted by the imminent onset of delight. Even here, though, the joy promises to be hard-won. A glow of pale yellow is still confined to an oblong in the upper section. Its radiance is beginning to spill down the rest of
the painting. But the promised transformation is far from complete. We are still aware of frailty, just as Caro’s sturdiest pieces exposed to the weather outside all remain threatened, inescapably, by the risk of collapse.

‘Anthony Caro and Sheila Girling’, New Art Centre, Roche Court, East Winterslow, tel 1980 862244, until September 16. Four books of Richard Cork’s writings on modern artists, including Caro, are published by Yale

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