EXHIBITION REVIEW by Wendy Rhodes
Rabley Contemporary is hosting a serene and tranquil show of drawing and ceramics by Nicholas Lees and Jeff Powell. The first few minutes spent with the finely crafted works provides the visitor with impressions of shifting light and ephemeral glimpses of forms, redolent of fleeting recollections. Take a little more time and each piece reveals itself as a complex engagement with materials exploiting the possibilities and boundaries of the hand-made. Lees has produced a series of porcelain vessels which defy concepts of solidity and outward form. The edges of his pieces are both precisely carved and uncertain, and the visitor’s perception of form is dependent on their viewpoint. Powell presents a large series of works which only reveal themselves as drawings on closer inspection. His use of layered pastel and crayon, paradoxically applied with meticulous attention to geometry also defies their material identity. Common to both artists is the exploration of the possibilities of materials; pushing the boundaries of clay and pastel. Whilst exerting control over inconsistencies inherent in their chosen technique, both Lees and Powell also celebrate unpredictable nuances. For Powell it can be the fragmentary nature pastel and for Lees this may be fluctuations of shape due to kiln temperatures.
Lees creates un-glazed porcelain vessels which delight in creating optical effects. The surface of each form is made indistinct, constructed of an apparent stack of disks hovering closely one above the other somehow joined in a central column. His pieces are, in fact, formed from one piece of clay – to achieve this Lees employs a process of throwing a very thick walled pot which he turns on a lathe once the clay has partially dried; spinning and carving the form. As the viewer moves around the exhibition Lees’ sculptures introduce a playful exchange between light and solidity; one of the most intriguing aspects is that his ceramic objects cast shadows with soft edges. Lees himself is excited and intrigued by the mutability of his forms and viewing his sculpture requires a playful interaction with the light in the gallery. By watching the movement of light on the forms, or by standing in the way of the light, new structures within the existing shape emerge.
Jeff Powell’s drawings are exquisitely composed arrangements of texture, form and the space they inhabit on the picture plane. Geometrically perfect forms with the crispest of edges cohabit with textural surfaces and loose drawing. The use of soft pastels brings humanity to the work; occasionally an edge softens ever so slightly, breathing life into the space. Powell explains this combination of mark making as an attempt to balance chaos and simplicity – order and dissonance. His pieces are made from many layers of drawing inspired by sketches of places along the tin coast of Penwith, Cornwall. His intriguing array of linear marks created by crayons, stencils and tracing creates solidity, fragility and nuance, exploring line as texture and as edge – dividing and containing. Picture spaces which could have become flat are activated by introducing lines alive with the speed of sketching, and smaller insertions of constrained disorder hint at life’s energy. His drawings include interpretations of rocks, abstractions of strata and carefully observed suggestions of place. Finished works, however, are no longer place bound; each drawing exists as a carefully choreographed balance of visual elements, an abstraction from specifics, seeking perfect harmony.
At first glance these two artists provide a suitable complement to each other through similarities of form and earthy colour palettes, but the link runs much deeper and is founded upon material processes, an iteration of concept which produces endless variations. In Lees’ vessels the repeated technique of sliced edges is realised through ovoid forms, columns and classical vases are suggested in taller pieces. Each shape brings a new conundrum, asking the viewer to decide whether they see internal or external form. Or perhaps it is the ephemeral shadow which hovers half way between these two assertions that provides the truth of his work. The drawings which Lees presents provide clues to starting points in the organisation of repeated shape disturbed by fluid interruptions. The solid mark diffused by elemental interaction. Powell similarly exploits forms in repetition, borrowing from one picture plane to another and trying them for size within each composition. This is a privilege of this exhibition. We, the viewer enter into the creative process; sharing in the decisions of the artist, testing shape and form, elemental colour and scale. The more familiar we become with these works the more we begin to decide preferences for which compositional arrangement is the most successful, evocative or reminiscent of our own associations with place, time and light. A special quality of this show, despite the outward pretence of precise execution is the small imperfections which mark all the works as hand-made. By looking very closely the visitor will observe that both have embarked upon a search for an elusive balance – precision brought to life by small imperfections; permitting a little chaos in their control. Such delicate disturbances in regularity breathe life into this exhibition and bring the viewer in to meet the maker.
Jeff Powell ‘Edge’
19 May – 22 June
Nicholas Lees ‘Penumbra’
Open Thurs, Fri, Sat 10-4 and by appointment