Erskine, Hall & Coe is pleased to present an exhibition of thirteen vessels by Jennifer Lee. These works form the majority of a fifteen-piece group from a private collection in America, with the remaining two featuring within the current Kettle’s Yard exhibition, Jennifer Lee: the potter’s space.
This is the first time that these works have been displayed together in the UK.
Collected over a period of two decades, the earliest piece dates from 1990 and the most recent is from 2011.
The following essay is from the exhibition catalogue written by Emma Crichton-Miller
It has been quite a year for Jennifer Lee. In 2018 her beautiful pot, Pale, shadowed, speckled traces, fading ellipse, bronze specks, tilted shelf, 2017, won her the LOEWE FOUNDATION Craft Prize, only the second time the prize had been awarded. The exhibition, Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Ceramics, had just closed at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where Lee’s display of unglazed pots, standing free on a single plinth, was one of the highlights. And this year, on 9th July, her first solo museum show in the United Kingdom since 1994, Jennifer Lee: the potter’s space, opened at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. While it may seem that full public recognition of Lee’s magisterial achievement as a potter has been long coming, that does not feel inappropriate. Hers is a slow growing art, which evolves incrementally from pot to pot, as Lee deepens and adjusts her vision and her expertise. In turn, each pot grows slowly, hand built from the base up, only finally expressing its entire beauty when it emerges from the kiln.
This exhibition of thirteen pots, collected over a twenty year period, with pots dated from 1990 to 2011, offers an excellent opportunity to study and admire Lee’s progress. What is exceptional about the collection is the decisive particularity of the collector’s choice and judgment. The pots here share a remarkable consistency of form and quality, even as no two are alike. They are of a fairly uniform height and are mostly upright vessels, gently swelling from a narrow base before narrowing softly again to the neck. While the bodies of the vessels are largely symmetrical, they are made in a wide range of differently coloured clay with the full range of different effects, achieved through the fastidious use of metal oxides, for which Lee is known - haloes, flashes, speckles and traces. They are finished by a wide variety of rims, named, in Lee’s precise vocabulary, “coned rim”, “emerging rim”, “flat shelf rim” and “tilted rim”. Together the pots represent a coherent, ongoing investigation into form and material and yet each one, examined alone, has the vitality of a fresh and original creation. For the collector, Mark Pollack, this group reflects two decades of interest in Lee’s work. For Lee, discovering these pots again, some after many years, they are the hidden thread which has bound the years of friendship she has shared with Pollack, and a now clearly visible, distinct strand in her own creative development. For the wider public, this is the first time many of these pots have been seen in Britain. Two further pots from Pollack’s collection are currently on loan by Erskine, Hall & Coe to the exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, an indication of their significance within her oeuvre.
Mark Pollack is a creative and highly successful textile designer renowned for the subtlety and inventiveness of his woven textiles. He is a serious collector of art across genres and media. As well as pots by Lee, Pollack has examples of the very different ceramic art of Ken Price, Ron Nagle and Geert Lap, among others. He explains, “I am very much a maker, a creator of woven textiles. So I have always been interested in how most things are made, their structure and what lies beneath the surface. When I first saw Jeff’s [Jennifer’s] work it had all that technical interest, but it was also incredibly beautiful and graceful.” Pollack says of the cohesiveness of his particular collection, which includes no bowls, “I don’t know if it was instinctual. I do like the elegance, the verticality of these and their subtlety. Although they reference utility, their utility does not overwhelm them.” He adds, “In Jeff’s work one of the delights is that there is also something going on inside - that something relates to what is on the outside but it is not the same, and it refers to its structure.” Pollack goes on, “It would be easy to say that there is no variation in Jeff’s work - but within her oeuvre there is tremendous experimentation - the thickening of the wall of the vessel, a subtle tilt of the rim or bulging of the form, the colours and patterns that derive from the different oxides. That there is a tremendous amount going on in a very small area speaks to me.”
Pollack has a particular fondness for the pots with “coned rims” - he collected four of them: “I just love how the aperture gets off-kilter. The void is thrown off its axis. And in the width of the rim itself, she is able to articulate that area as another plane.”
Pollack also admires what he describes as “the quality of transparency” in Lee’s work, “as if she had peeled back the top layer to reveal this lighter surface. I can almost hear it tear.” He picks out especially Olive, three umber rings, 2007: “It has just three rings, but it has that torn quality.” Of the magnificent Olive, haloed granite bands, tilted rim, 2003, he says: “There is a reason we make three dimensional objects. This is really beautiful to see in the round - the bands widen and narrow and the relationship between them alters. If the form were not so simple all that would be lost. It has a dynamic, graphic quality.”
Pollack kept this collection, carefully gathered over many years, together in a small space maybe 26 by 16 inches across, on a counter beside his cooker, as strapped for display space as manyNew Yorkers. Pollack acknowledges that this horrified Lee, at first. But he says, “They were so glorious that way. Even just seeing their rims, the variety is so rich.” He adds, “It would be nice if someone else were to appreciate these qualities, this particular aspect of her work. Jeff taken to an extreme.”
For Lee herself, the encounter with pots she had not seen for a long time has been startling and instructive: “I really value the fact that Mark collected my work for so long. He was so particular. And so intently attuned, his extraordinary eye.” Most she remembers clearly: “I do remember each one, because I spend so much time on each one and because I draw them afterwards, which makes me look at them closely.” She notes successive waves of experimentation: for instance, the evolution of the first recorded flat shelf rim in 1990, followed by the appearance of the emerging rim later that year and then the appearance of the coned rim before the birth of her daughter Hannah, in 1995. Olive, three umber rings, from 2007, displays what Lee calls “vibrating bands”,the result of the carefully controlled reaction of different clay mixes, an effect Lee still at times pursues.
As she says, “I’m always searching for new, unknown materials, for new methods of achieving colour, and also a different visual surface, a different depth.” Working, as she does, from pot to pot, or sometimes in small groups for particular shows, she had not expected this group necessarily to sing so harmoniously together. She comments “I was not seeking to make a conversation out of them, when I made them. But they are of an ilk, and they all sit incredibly well together because of Mark’s careful choosing, and his vision, and what he wanted to read through my work.”
Emma Cricton-Miller is a writer, editor and arts journalist. She is editor of The Design Edit and contributes regularly to the Financial Times, Apollo Magazine, Crafts Magazine and Ceramic Review.