Precision…

The presentation of the Arts Council touring show – Breaking The Mould – at Lakeside is pretty exemplary – in the online guide (made at YSP’s Longside)it looks a tad haphazard and the long run of windows doesn’t help.  In the Djanology it runs smoothly through, initially chronologically and then thematically as it gathers pace.  THe long barrel shaped room focusses the works in there and the controlled lighting picks out the work beautifully, especially the wall mounted pieces.  It might well be a function of my age but to my eye some of the best work comes from the generations nearer to me.  I particularly love the Untitled pieces by the late Shelagh Cluett and that of Alison Wilding, whilst both works are open to interpretation, each has a precision in material choice and execution that make them especially satisfying.  Neither of these artists have gained quite the kind of reputation they deserve but one suspects that such purity of visual thinking sits somewhat at odds with the current zeitgeist.  That is amply represented in the selection, Helen Marten, Phyllida Barlow and Holly Hendry (a new name to me) all throw a lot at the viewer and again its probably just my taste but I find it too much.  Of the works from the past decade I was drawn to the works of Rana Begum and Alice Channer that share something of the same clarity as Wilding and Cluett.  Of course most of the bigger names are here, but the nature of the collection focused on smaller more portable works doesn’t always show them off to best effect, Cornelia Parker and Rachel Whiteread, in particular, work much better in environments they are able to exclusively control.  

One of the precepts of the exhibition that didn’t come across to me perhaps as strongly as was intended by the curation was that of the ‘challenging of male-dominated narratives’.  I recognise that sculpture in the UK in the post war period well into the 70’s was ‘male-dominated’, almost exclusively so (take away Hepworth and Frink and it looked dire, although the early part of this display shows there were quite a few others battling away against this tide).  But what some of the particular ‘narratives’ were is harder to clarify…take for example the work of Katherine Gili, that to my mind is as powerful as her male contemporaries and colleagues but how far it is possible to drive a clearly alternative reading of her work from, say, that of Anthony Smart, a colleague at Stockwell Depot in the 70’s, is harder to see.  The same might be said of Emma Park, Shirazeh Houshiary and Wendy Taylor’s pieces.  That said there are of course several artists included who make very explicitly alternative and polemicised readings, Mary Kelly, Helen Chadwick and Sarah Lucas very much so.  But overall it’s hard to know what, or indeed why, much of the work (particularly by many of the younger artists) needs to challenge any narratives other than the viewer’s own preconceptions.  Certainly by the time we come into the work made in the 21st c. binary narratives seem rather quaint – one reading of that selection might suggest that the gender of those chosen is immaterial – they just happen to be sculptors who are women.  That carping aside (and from someone who identifies as male) a super selection.  I was especially taken with the piece by Alice Channer that seems to have a specificity in thinking and a generosity of expression that encompasses both a gender particularity with a strong sense of embodied absence.

Plaza, Louisa Chambers, acrylic on linen, 2021

Out in the Angear space Louisa Chambers seems an apposite choice for a solo outing in her show entitled Criss Cross.  Much of the work draws on folded constructed sources she invents herself.  Yes it is painting, often morphing into a devised 2d space that might or might not be recognised from its source, but is often fairly clearly declaring its origins.  This is especially so where a surface on which the forms sit is evidently presented.  There is a strong painterly presence at work here, indeed a precision, not entirely remote from that of say, Cluett & Wilding, although a nearer comparator (generationally and aesthetically) might be Begum.  What the paintings do suggest is that a very sophisticated colour intelligence is at work allied to a deft and elegant reading of space and questioning of the way in which it is depicted.  

Louisa Chambers – Works on paper, Angear Gallery, Lakeside Arts, Nottingham

If one wanted to mildly critique the work on show it might be something of a lack of risk taking…Louisa amply demonstrates that she can master these pictures and can build complexity into them as they are scaled up.  Plaza, the largest canvas here, is a good example.  However the clutch of works on paper show that a more questioning aesthetic may be on the horizon where a greater sense of freedom and originality of approach shows through.  Chambers has also played with pattern making in the space in which work is displayed in other locations…a show with colleagues at The Harley Gallery comes to mind…and does so again on the Angear back wall – but here too there’s a certain tentativeness.  Given the oddity of this wall with its peculiar recessed circle it is perhaps an opportunity missed to go for broke.  Nonetheless this show is very compelling and offers a strong and satisfying unity with glimpses of new directions also being forged.

Louisa Chambers, installation, Angear Gallery, Lakeside Arts

Richard Perry

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5 ceramic sculptures, including 3 water columns and 2 marker pieces. Heights 4, 3, 2 and I metres.  Commissioned by Grosvenor Estates for Festival Square, Basingstoke, 2002

This is a rarity for this blog…let me explain.  I’ve known Richard Perry for over thirty years.  He got in touch with me not long after he graduated and had taken a loft studio in Newark, Nottinghamshire whilst I was working for the regional Arts Council.  From the off I recognised both his talent and his seriousness. Over the years he has developed a substantial reputation, mainly for a succession of major public commissions.  Recently we’ve become near neighbours and with his solo show in the Angear space at Lakeside coming up (criminally a rather rare event), he asked me to write a short piece for the text panel in the gallery.  So this is not a review  but the expanded text from which the panel in the gallery is abridged…

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Work in progress, studio

No surprise that in his public works the form of the tree plays a significant part of the repertoire: the sculpture of Richard Perry stands up solidly and elegantly like a fully grown English Oak full of surprising twists, turns and original features. Few contemporary carvers, especially those drawn to geometry, have been so cavalier with those most obdurate materials, such as marbles and that especially hard limestone from Kilkenny. A glance at, say, Interlocking Oaks, a piece at the old Boots HQ here in Nottingham from 2000 is indicative of the striking quality of the distinguished track record of public work right across the British Isles and beyond.

In this exhibition (a relatively rare opportunity to see a body of his work) the artist features recent studio sculptures, a few paintings and a suite of drawings, all of which in various ways touch upon ongoing concerns for the interactions and relationships of basic geometric forms in space. If there is a key component that best sums up the ambition in the work as a whole then poise might be it. Indeed this is a contemporary artist willing to engage in and admit to one of the greatest taboos in current art, beauty, and worse still for many so whisper it, craft.

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Perry is fully aware of the dangers that lurk in these waters. No-one visiting his lean-to studio, exposed to the elements and (one suspects) perishing in winter, could be in doubt that the artist (given to standing and pondering the work for long spells of time) takes very seriously the pitfalls that both form and material can easily fall into – that ‘homes & gardens’ aesthetic as it were. These are lovely materials and in Richard’s experienced hands, fashioned into just as seductive formal characteristics.

A great deal of deliberation is required – hard, painstakingly concentrated looking – to ensure that this plane, or that surface, set against another is ‘right’ or more precisely has that quality that the great ceramicist Bernard Leach called ‘thusness’ (after his studies on the work of Soetsu Yanagi) and yet is also full of surprises. Indeed it is hard to see how these interlocking forms, planes, surfaces and voids could be arranged in any other manner once they are frozen in space. Each work becomes a game of Jenga, that pastime where towers are constructed from regular wooden blocks and the removal of a single piece can bring the whole thing crashing down.

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To return to the notion of poise, and to use it in its archaic sense, it is the balance achieved in the sculpture (and just as surely in the paintings where colour is deployed with great sensitivity to both invite and contradict the sensations of moving through space) that solidifies the equilibrium of all the competing elements. That all this happens with material that is solid, stubborn and hard to fashion is a real testament to ability and durability in the character of the artist. Poise is also a technical term for a unit of dynamic viscosity, the act of resistance in shearing flows where layers move parallel to one another at differing speeds. This too seems apt in pieces where planes shift and tilt both in parallel and opposed to one another, and where the eye speeds across the surfaces but is then arrested by surprising conjunctions and original tropes.

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It is in the drawings that these twists and turns of expected and then wholly unexpected formal arrangements are sent racing along at astonishing speed. With a myriad of variated marks, tones and intervals the images reveal something of the artist’s endlessly inventive and quizzical exploration of what form and material might be able to achieve in space that is both real and imagined. Perry opens up possibilities for what sculpture might achieve were we to crack open our three physical dimensions and discover one, two, three or more that some physicists and mathematicians tell us are already out there.

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Barbara Hepworth – Small One, Two, Three (Vertical) 1975

Of course geometric sculpture (emerging in the early twentieth century) went through many reiterations of all kinds over the succeeding decades but pretty much fell out of favour by the mid sixties as the minimalists boiled it down to its essences. But curiously a small late (perhaps the last complete) work by Barbara Hepworth – Small One, Two, Three (Vertical) 1975 – might be seen as something of a precursor to these pieces by Richard.  In it she precariously balances a group of planes across three blocks atop each other. It is intriguing to imagine how these might have been extrapolated and developed into more complex arrangements had she lived…I’m taken with an idea that they might well have resembled a Richard Perry piece in this gallery.

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Halley 3, 2013