I'd recently spent a couple of weeks helping out at a rather swanky gallery in Mayfair. All plush carpets and sympathetic lighting. Peckham's Sunday Painter, which I visited on Friday afternoon, is not like that. In fact I'd walked past it many times and assumed it to be some kind of members bar or perhaps the offices of a local newspaper. The kindest description of the interior would be 'shabby chic'. The white paint that's been used on the walls has left splotches on the bare wood stairwell and the corridors are half-blocked with delivery boxes for what I assume to be future exhibitions.
The current exhibition is by Gillian Lowndes. A ceramics sculptor I'd previously been unaware of but she's got a reasonably lengthy Wikipedia page and, when she died in 2010, received an obituary in The Guardian. Both of these, for me, are signs of having made it.
Making is what she was all about too. Although it's a bit pat to describe pottery as radical there is some truth in it. Her work is certainly radical in the sense that it has no actual practical use. 1981's Wall mounted Brick Bag, below, hasn't even been named to suggest it has any value other than something to be stared at. So that's what I did. I stared at the melted brick in its fibreglass bag. It looked interesting but I can't say I felt any great depth of emotion. In that respect it was not dissimilar to other recent exhibitions I'd attended by Laura Owens and Marc Camille Chaimowicz.
Gillian Lowndes was born in 1936 in Cheshire and spent much of her childhood in what was then known as British India. She studied at London's Central School of Arts and Crafts and the L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris before going on to teach at both Camberwell Art College and St Martins.
Her work has been seen as a response to her immediate environment. She claimed the Brick Bag series, apparently a watershed moment in her career, was inspired by witnessing the overflowing piles of plastic bin liners that accumulated across London during the refuse collectors' strike between '78 & '79.
Collage with Cup Handles comes from 1988, nearly a decade later. It's made of metal, Egyptian paste, earthenware, and paint and it looks, to be frank, like junk. I think that was the point though. Lowndes was working at a time when most practitioners of her medium were primarily concerned with the functional and/or the decorative. It was seen, on an admittedly small scale, as a transgressive act to make these works that don't look pretty and serve no function.
That's not to say they're ugly. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. This beholder wouldn't go quite that far but they are, at least, intriguing. Faint praise for sure but that's possibly the nature of making work ahead of its time. Eventually others catch up and even overtake you and the work can start to look dated. Hook Figure (1994, above) has loofahs attached to it and Lowndes wasn't averse to doing a Uri Geller on the kitchen cutlery either. Bent forks and spoons feature throughout this compact, one room, show.
The below selection has been listed as four separate works. Clockwise from the top they are Collage with Cup Handle (1988), Shredded Clay with Claw (1994), Collage with Cup (1986), and Small collage with puffball (1994). By now you'll be getting a fairly clear idea of the nature of Lowndes' work and the motifs and themes she returned to time and again in her art.
A few things jumped out at me as I wondered what would be an appropriate amount of time to ponder essentially meaningless items before I could go to the pub. The fibreglass, metal, clay, sand, and bone china of 1994's Untitled Form (above) had an undoubtedly aesthetic pull. It felt more alive than other works exhibited.
If my Dad was to cast his eyes on 1995's Scroll he'd probably wisecrack that the builders had left some of their gear in the room. Which would remind of an installation that Fischli & Weiss put up in Tate Modern when it first opened. It consisted, seemingly, of old tyres, pallets, drills, and paint splattered radios but it'd all been lovingly created to look as such. It was, in fact, a very traditional piece. Not sure Scroll quite deserves to be in that exalted company but it's of a similar, if less impressive, nature and I liked looking at it. Which is, of course, all that matters.
On the wall across from it sat another Wall mounted Brick Bag (again from 1981). The ever so slight difference in the details show that these are works that Lowndes must have thought long and hard about. Alas, they did very little for me.
More pleasing was the messy Almost off the Wall (2001). Just ceramic and a load of stray wires it reminded me of the dodgy, unsafe, electricity cables I experienced when visiting China in 2005. In fact I was reminded of quite a lot of things as I looked round Lowndes' diverting, if hardly mind blowing, little show. Her influences ranged from the Arte Povera and the Yoruba artwork she saw during an eighteen month spell in Nigeria in the early 1970s. I couldn't, with my hand on my heart, say her bricolage transcended them but, if nothing else, she helped bring clearer definition to these things to a British audience.