As two new exhibitions open in Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre this week, featuring the work of Welsh artist Jess Parry and renowned potter Walter Keeler, we take a look at what to expect from these striking collections.
There’s certainly no shortage of variety in Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre’s newly opened spring programme. Pretty, the new solo exhibition by local Welsh artist Jess Parry, shares a series of work that combines collage, embroidery and found materials to construct monstrous feminine forms. Parry is fascinated by the filth and flesh that makes us human. Through painting, drawing, sculpture, performance, and digital media, she confronts the ideology that surrounds feminine body parts to unearth the grotesque.
In Pretty, Parry has broadened her practice to explore the typically gendered domestic craft of embroidery. Through her stiches, Parry disrupts expectations and traditions, creating works of sinister seduction through a process that is more commonly seen as beautiful and peaceful, rather than raw and confrontational.
Touch and the hand play an important role in Parry’s work. Through tracing the similarities between the hand of the artist, and that of the butcher, the seamstress, and the surgeon, she merges their approaches, combining creation and delicacy with violence and intimacy. In this work Parry dissects the human body, zooming in to consider its details. Whether examining hands, nails, or mouths, the focus is on the expectations we have for each element to be perfect and pretty, despite often being overlooked in daily life. Subjectivity is also explored, as imperfections for some can be beauty for others. This leads us to question how we relate to, and understand, the body? Does it exist as an idea we construct and idealise in our imagination? Or is it confined to our own physical realities, the movement, aches, and processes that we continually perform and embody?
It’s just a few steps through the foyer and gift shop to move from one gallery to the other in the Centre, but it initially seems like a stark shift in tone from the work of Jess Parry to the other exhibition opening simultaneously this spring and yet, the threads of delicacy and imagination continue in the self-titled exhibition of potter Walter Keeler. Keeler is an internationally renowned potter who creates useful pieces that explores the sculptural potential of functional design. His fascination with pots stems from his childhood, mud larking along the tidal banks of the Thames. The ceramic fragments he found kindled a passion for old pots, and, subliminally, a tactical key to the methods of those long dead potters. This sense of tradition is at the heart of Keeler’s work, as is his desire to create items which can be put to practical use:
“I make undemanding useful things like mugs and jugs which bring pleasure and amusement to daily life. Some pots are composed, like sculpture, playing with components, material, and process, which results in surprising pieces which challenge their user to make them work. I hope my pottery brings humour and sensual pleasure despite its sometimes austere appearance.”
Whether throwing while plastic or lathe turning when leather hard, the clay’s response to hand and tool offers countless possibilities for the maker’s imagination. The understanding of how the surface of fired pots can reflect and amplify the clay’s nature, and his creative intentions, is integral to Keeler’s work. From his first obsession with the reactive magic of firing salt glaze; to the freshness and refinement of white earthenware, Keeler delights in the mystery, drama and context of these processes; the practical clarity of brown salt glaze reflected in his salt ware; the quirky eccentricities of 18th century Staffordshire creamware, provoking a more playful, wayward path in his earthenware.
The exhibition, coinciding with Keeler’s 81st birthday, is testimony to the longevity of his career. Having been born in London he attended Harrow School of Art, London where he was trained by Victor Margrie and Michael Casson. He established his first pottery at Bledlow Bridge, Buckinghamshire in 1965 then moved to Penallt in 1976 where he lives with his potter wife, Madoline. Keeler was named Welsh Artist of the Year and his work is held in a number of public collections including the Victoria & Albert Museum,
National Museum Wales, American Craft Museum, New York and the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.
What is striking across both exhibitions is the fragility of the items on display. Look beyond their immediate differences and there is much to compare in the textured presentation of human and bodily function in Parry’s work and the delicacy and beauty of Keeler’s functional pottery. Both collections celebrate that drive to create, to challenge social constructions of beauty and to question what physical processes really mean within our bodies and within art itself.
Both exhibitions run at Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre until 22nd April 2023. Information, including opening times, is available here.