Liminal and Lenticular by Natalie Baerselman le Gros

‘Liminal and Lenticular’ brings together the work of two talented ceramicists, Nicholas Lees and Greg Payce, to explore their shared preoccupations. Their practices are strikingly different but manifest interests that examine edge and volume, surface and form, material and light, within and without their works. Both artists, career-long ceramicists, make and conceptualise the fundamental form of the vessel.

Nicholas Lees’ volumes are almost severe in their precision and fine-ness, he manifests the contradictory fragility and strength of the material of porcelain in a way that is unseen and almost indescribable. The forms, whether bowls, orbs, urns, columns, towers or totems, are simultaneously architectural, in their pin-perfect engineered forms and scientifically precise colourisation, and equally natural, limpid growths like mushroom fins or the crystalline clusters of a desert rose, or, more phenomenologically, raking light beams that twist and turn, refracted through a swaying crystal.

Their effect is magnified by the space and light around them, and their proximity to one another. The depth of the fin affects the illumination through the form, creating areas of light and dark. The effect is deepened in the diptych and triptych works, where one work can be seen against and through another, areas of fallen light clash with shadowed darkness, one does not end before the other begins. This affect is most acute on those pure white porcelain pieces and made increasingly complicated by those that incorporate colour to further confuse the eye in its perception of form.

Lees plays with illusion in volume and space. The fine fins of Lees’ vessels both appear to emanate from an undefined core, like arching rays of light not part of the actual object, whilst offering a definition of the external dimensions of the volume. But the play of light across the form, and, if strong enough, through the thin porcelain edges, as well as the active movement of the viewer around the work, provide different perspectives on the possible volumes we are perceiving.

Lees’ work is inherently vessel based, and, if not directly, are linked to a concept of contained and occupied space. Surveying the history of his practice, even back to his student days; his teachers, the likes of Wally Keeler who taught him to throw at Bristol; his influences, greats such as Lucie Rie and Hans Coper – all lead back to a preoccupation with what he describes as ‘wrapping up a bit of space’. The conceptualisation of the vessel, fundamental to the medium, although much varied and abstracted throughout the ceramic continuum, is this function of containment and the implication that follows of hollowness, a delineation of within and without the vessel walls. Ceramic students are taught of the upmost importance of the rims of pots, the defining boundary between one’s definition of space and the rest of the world.

Lees’ focus on this conceptualisation is governed also by materiality and the finite boundaries of the clay object – a ceramicist by nature cannot remove themselves from the thingness of what they are making, a practice and object literally definable by the raw material used. But his intention is to draw one’s attention beyond, to the interaction between the object and its shadows, the gradation of the finite into the infinite. The results are intentionally unresolved illusions, in his words the ‘half-there’ or ‘semi-present’ form.

In Lees’ seemingly simplest forms, the Orbit, visually akin to the Moon Jar, its vessel-ness can appear a simple and solid spherical structure but through light and movement it isrevealed that the fins cut into that space, perceived once as hollow. Lees unique technique creates visual distortions in which the concepts of internal and external, of surface and volume are one and the same.

Lees’ process begins at the wheel, throwing thick-walled forms contrary to the thrower’s intuition, forms that would unlikely survive a kiln-firing at such a thickness. A careful and mediated drying process over a number of weeks brings the clay to a black leather hard stage, at which point Lees introduces a seemingly un-clay friendly tool, the lathe. The forms, mounted on a plaster chuck, are spun, and with a needle-fine file, Lees carves paper-thin fins, deeper and deeper into the clay volume. This complex process, although mastered by Lees, is still one of chance and risk, the process defines the possible size of the objects, but these are boundaries Lees continues to push with an ever-ambitious scale.

Lees works in contradiction to practised ceramic technique, whereas much throwing, pinching or hand building is a generally additive process, clay is built up to create a form, conversely, Lees takes the activity of the throwing and then turning process of tidying feet and surface to the extreme, reducing the clay to reveal the form. This process of carving into the clay is that of reduction or perhaps extraction of form, much like a sculptor might work to extract a form from the marble block. Michelangelo was notably quoted as setting his sculptures free from the marble, and one can imagine the same for Lees forms.

Particularly fitting considering the material of choice, Parian Porcelain, was developed in the 19th century by Staffordshire potteries to mimic marble, initially for busts and figurines. Porcelain is a magical paradox, almost diamond like, the hard clean white surface seems indestructible, but the capacity of light to penetrate and transform the material betrays its fragility. Everyone is familiar with the breakable nature, or indeed tendency, of ceramic, perhaps this precarity, manifest so acutely in Lees’ work, lends something to the romanticism of the material.

Further diverting well-learned ceramic processes and perpetuating the projection of illusion is Lees’ application of colour. Lees describes how many potters can be placed in a certain camp of making, those that concentrate on form, and those on surface, and those that attempt to make the two meet in the middle. Parian Porcelain, though, is a rare material of both camps, it fires with a softly sheened surface, that does not require glaze, but as one is learning, Lees is not one for following given traditions of ceramic.

Lees describes the ceramic surface as the interface between presence and absence, but his is not one applied through brush or dipping, the colour comes from within and the forms appear almost watercoloured. The success of the colour relies on the form’s capacity, its very vessel-ness, to contain liquid, but not in such a way that a functional vessel might. Lees fills the form’s void with a much practised and carefully refined liquid mixture of water and soluble metal salts. The mixture is absorbed into the unfired clay walls and the water evaporates through, the process of evaporation draws the metallic salts through the fins, leaving traces within the walls of the ceramic. Where a functional vessel’s intrinsic quality is to be water-tight and leak-proof, the successful introduction of colour in Lees’ work relies on the permeable quality of unfired clay and the ability of water to draw a substance through clay materials. Equally, in general ceramic glazes are defined by their insolubility, their nature to lie atop a surface and bond to it. By exploiting these qualities, Lees actively contradicts the vessel-ness of his forms and the ceramic-ness of his non-glazes. The colour serves to draw attention to the boundaries of the piece, and to affect its whole-ness, the successful coalescence of object and surface, so often distinct in ceramic. Lees’ occupation with the osmosis of one material through another via the medium of water echoes similarly in his works on paper. His drawing practice runs alongside his ceramics, neither necessarily inspiring the other particularly but his works on paper allow him to explore ideas more quickly and instinctively. The inked line is blurred and degraded through ever increasing stages of dilution, water conversely introduced to the blank page before the application of ink. It was the ephemerality and fluidity of this process that encouraged Lees to explore colour in his ceramics, driven to recreate the same phenomena in the physical object.

Greg Payce’s vessels are fine in detail and unassuming to the glancing eye. Their simple and subtle forms only whisper of a further secret, there is little flamboyance. Mostly rendered in clean white or monochrome black, even those embellished with colour are decorated so with simple geometric banding. One could be forgiven for assuming their closer association with functional or decorative ceramics. But their display in the gallery gives way to enquiry. Where the fundamental vessel is usually considered in isolation, Payce’s vessels are placed close together, rim to lip, to almost be touching. Payce is interested in the effect of the collective, vessels in tandem or en masse.

These objects reveal their agenda only with close looking, one could walk by admiringly but to fully appreciate Payce’s vessels the viewer must look beyond, or rather between, to that space which the object shares and governs. The edges of these works are where meaning is made, for within the void manifests an image that isn’t there, that is formed purely from the existence of the object which surrounds it. A figure, a face, in silhouetted profile, appears. That non-material space becomes a positive image through an illusion that recalls ‘Rubin’s Vase’: a graphic rendering of two opposing face profiles that between them produce the image of a vase. The eye can only see one at a time, never both simultaneously. Payce inverts this illusion, the space between two vases creates a figure profile and, through physical manifestation, makes the illusion the more phenomenal. The material vases reinforce the immateriality of the illusion, his own style of trompe l’oeil. The silhouetted image tests our perceptions of space, the depth perceived through the vessels as image takes on a third dimension and the non-material becomes material, if only optically, almost stereoscopic. In doing so, the combination of vessel and illusion challenges the defining limits of what is image and what is object and in turn the conceptual and functional opposition, particularly pertinent to ceramic.

In Rubin’s illusion, the importance of the edge does not carry meaning further than to serve the illusory image it creates. But for Payce, the critical edge of his work, of the vases, serves not only to map out the illusion but defines the vase itself and the success of its function as a vessel as representative of the utile void within. As a container, the vessel, is defined by the space it holds, the role of the vessel walls is to demarcate that space.

For Payce the vessel walls serve to demarcate externally as well as internally. Payce makes his ceramics about the whole object, both inside, outside and around. In doing so, Payce bridges the historic hierarchical dualisms, or often oppositions, of ceramic that have been tools to marginalise the medium in an artistic context: between form and function, surface and decoration and material and idea, the physical and the conceptual elements of the works are bonded and reciprocal, each informs and relies on the other. Payce sees no requirement to abstract into distortion those fundamental vessel properties in order to making meaning from them.In forming the face or the body within the space around and between his vessels, Payce draws attention to the linguistic and formal connection between the two. For our taxonomy of the vessel mirrors that of the body, seeing parts named as neck, mouth, lip, shoulder, body, belly, hip, and foot. Payce describes the vessel as an abstraction of human form and this identifies a primal desire in the viewer to identify in and relate to bodies presented to us, we are inherently creatures of comparison. The success of Payce’s illusions demands the physical reorientation of the viewer, their movement around the work to fully align their viewership with the illusion created. In doing so, the work engages with the body visually, metaphorically and physically.

Payce draws distinctions between the clay and ceramics, the former being the raw material, the latter the object that populates and defines cultural and social histories throughout the archaeological record. As an avid collector of ceramics himself, the influences of that material continuum are ever present within his work and his approach to the fundamental vessel form. Drawing on the diverse manifestations of ceramic, Payce channels influences from Italian albarelli, the tightly packed apothecary vessels, stacked hip to shoulder but formed with a narrowed waist to allow space for the hand to take hold, to classical black and red pottery of Greece and Rome and the ceramic garnitures of high- status houses, densely layered presentations of exotic ceramics as a display of wealth. His works often make overt references to these visual trends in ceramics and his installations have often made use of objects or photography of historical ceramics from his own and museum collections. Simultaneously, the lost practice of silhouette cutting presents another of Payce’s references to historical arts, an 18th and 19th century pre- photography solution to capturing a person’s likeness and affordable alternative to the portrait miniature.

Through Payce’s oeuvre, the concept and manifestation of image has been transposed from surface, to void and finally to video and photography, seen in a contrasting aspect to Payce’s ceramic practice, that of remediation through alternative mediums. Remediation is a process of communication or interpretation of ideas expressed in an old medium through a new. Namely via videography and lenticular printing Payce is able to work experimentally and at scale, in a manner that would be precarious or even impossible for ceramic. They also allow him to add extra or changing layers of interpretation to existing ceramic installations. In particular, video works such as Transfiguration Redux, see slowly spinning vessels projected with images of the active figure or animal. The works have an intentional reminiscence of Edward Muybridge, a pioneering photographer in the study of motion, occasionally using archival footage of Muybridge’s studies of the figure in motion and recall earlier ceramic installations of Payce in which the movement of the viewer past and through ceramics decorated with figures gave the illusion of directional movement in actually static illustrations.

Payce’s lenticular printed photography bridges the physical ceramic works and video installations by capturing a sense of movement that is manifest in the videos but activated in the real world only by the physical movement of the beholder. The effect is created through the splicing of multiple different angled photos of the same subject, placed under a lenticular lens. The viewer only sees one image at a time as the eye moves across the print, creating the potential for perceived movement and illusory depth. Payce has used this method to reproduce, curated views of his ceramic at a large, often person-sized, scale and heighten the closer examination and experience of his non-material spaces. Although these video and photography works represent the complete physical dissolution of the vessel, through this remediation Payce states the works are still about ceramic, notthe medium to which they have been transposed. They continue Payce’s illusion of optics in a physical realm and fully counter any associations of tactility with ceramic, particularly from a domestic or utile realm, heightening the requirement of the viewer to look closely. They offer an expanded experience and new perspective, allowing the viewer a more intimate interaction with the works, a closer immersive view often not possible with exhibited ceramics.

Both artists are pre-occupied with the spaces around their works and the illusions of form that that space can create. The function of the work’s edge is inverted, or rather doubled, not just to define the physical form but to create form and therefore meaning in the space around. Lees defines the vessel as a delineation of space, space confined as well as defined from that space which surrounds it. Payce inverts his vessels, instead of a vessel’s meaning being derived from that internal void defined within, he determines the external void to be a place for communication.

The most interesting and vital aspects of both artists’ works is the capacity for it to derive meaning from and in a sense be defined by the manipulation or creation of space by the object, around the object, and the mutual effect of such space returned upon the object. And in both artists, this does not just apply to the immediate space, that which touches the edges of the object, but by the atmosphere in which it is displayed, by the circulatory space around it that a viewer might travel in their full contemplation of the piece, the further space from which light and shadow penetrate from and govern the conditions of one’s viewership. For Payce, the transposition of the viewer’s perspective into contrasting mediums heightens the capacity for seeing as a means to understand the work and contemplate our spatial bodily relationship. Lees describes a continuity of looking, a process of sustained and episodic observation that provides an ever-refreshed sense of perspective. The conditions under which one views these objects is never static, and never repeated, the viewer themselves is always changed. Thinking retrospectively, Lees connects this thinking to his yearly trips to Arisaig in Scotland, taken every year since he was five weeks old. To observe the same inter-tidal vista year in year out but to recognise its liminal status, the ever-changing flora and fauna, the transitional (read: unreliable) British weather, and his own dynamic self, he recognises he, in fact, never sees the same view twice.

In conclusion, one will never and should never tire of looking.


Natalie Baerselman le Gros
December 2023

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