Walking around the central installation in ‘Jennifer Lee: the potter’s space’ – 36 pots arranged on a floating plinth in the centre of one of Kettle’s Yard’s light-filled galleries – it’s all I can do to stop myself leaning over to pick the objects up. Pots often have this effect: they give themselves to hands. It is a specific synaesthesia by which sight simultaneously evokes a kind of shadow or premonition of the feel of the thing. And Lee’s more than most. This is perhaps because of their smoothly curved bases – formed, in the early days, using press moulds; latterly, from the ancient and seemingly universal technique of coiling clay. You can imagine these pots in cupped hands.
Not that any inkling of function pertains here. And why should it? Vessels have often been unfairly slighted by the expectation that, because they are open, they should contain something. (We never ask the same of sculptures.) Lee’s vessels are perfectly self-contained. In fact, as this beautiful presentation of nearly 40 years of her work suggests, there is a remarkable continuity across her forms – not a case of gradual refinement towards an ideal but, rather, continuous experimentation within a modest set of parameters. Unglazed, their striated colouring comes from being hand-built (as opposed to thrown on a wheel) from bands of different types of clay ‘seasoned’ with metallic ores: a library of materials built up over decades.
The cuboid sweep of plinth has been conceived by Jamie Fobert, the architect behind the recent, supremely elegant extension to Kettle’s Yard, the much-loved former home of collector, curator and self-described ‘friend of artists’ Jim Ede and his wife, Helen. Its height is derived from the workbench in Lee’s south London studio – a fact that you don’t need to know to appreciate how unfussily close it brings you to the work. The show (curated by Sarah Griffin) opens with a piece made for Lee’s Royal College of Art graduation show in 1983. Titled, in her characteristic description-turned-prose-poem fashion, Rust stippled, smoky grey band, it’s one of the smallest works on display: speckled umber, narrowing at the neck – which is shot through with bluish-grey, like a misty horizon – and flaring again at the rim. It was made after Lee visited Egypt and bears the influence of ancient Middle Eastern pottery, as well as of the forms through which such archaic references were filtered by modernists such as Hans Coper and Lucy Rie. David Queensberry, Lee’s tutor at the RCA, once described her pots as having ‘a timeless quality’: their haloed, speckled compositions both geological and cosmic. This sense is reinforced here by the way that forms resonate across the decades. Fobert’s exhibition design, which allows viewers to walk all the way around the central plinth, invites an infinity of through-lines and incidental conversations between pieces. At the opposite end to Rust stippled, smoky grey band, the most recent pot on display, Pale, speckled traces, speckled olive tilted shelf (2019), echoes its scooped base and gently swollen sides.
Five further pots have been placed in Kettle’s Yard house itself, amongst the Edes’s magical collection of modernist artworks and accumulated objects. At one end of the living room, beneath a triptych of Italo Valenti’s mid-1960s torn-paper collages, one of Lee’s off-white forms, flashed with a meteorite’s tail of speckled green-grey, keeps easy company with Rie’s Conical Bowl (1971). One of Kettle’s Yard’s most famous objects is not an artwork at all, but a spiral of 76 spherical pebbles, carefully arranged by Jim in size order. It calls to mind both an ammonite fossil and a swirling galaxy. ‘A timeless quality’. Lee’s exhibition is one of which Ede surely would have approved.
Jennifer Lee, ‘the potter’s space’ runs at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, until 22 September 2019.
Main image: Jennifer Lee, Pale, 1997, Shigaraki Red, 2014, Asymmetric amber lichen, 1986, (f.l.t.r.), installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Jon Stokes