Two extracts from an essay commissioned to accompany the exhibition ‘Sarah Purvey: Boundaries’, at Twenty Twenty Gallery, Ludlow, 12 March – 16 April 2022.

Sarah Purvey works both in clay and on paper, an inter-related body of work in which drawing is the unifying factor. Throughout, the process is instinctive and organic. In clay there are vessels and deeply encrusted relief pieces, the latter roughly circular or square. The vessels are not functional but are highly distinctive sculptural objects, their surfaces earthy and tactile. They are made from one of two types of clay, both containing grog, which provides additional body and emphasises materiality. One is red, and becomes black during firing; the other, named crank, is paler, and retains its rather fleshy tone after leaving the kiln. Each vessel begins with a round or oval base, to which long coils of clay are pressed into place, structure built up in short bursts of intense activity. The artist strives to work meditatively and at speed, listening, feeling, responding, finding herself ‘lost in the making’, each pinch of clay equivalent to a single heartbeat. As she progresses, words and conversations surface from an internal dialogue, as though from the intermittent babble of a crossed telephone line, often prompting her to pause in order to note them down. One is struck by the idea that these fragments of language might effectively become written into the work, as inflections within the overall design. For one senses – and this becomes apparent in conversation with the artist – that there is a private language, of thought and meaning, underlying the work in its entirety.

Purvey has described drawing as a physically and emotionally charged act, a statement one might extend to the whole of her practice. The artist’s drawings are not studies for three-dimensional pieces but works in their own right, made in mixed media on paper of various weights and textures. Multi-layered, their starting point is in dilute black gouache, applied directly from the bottle and worked over with a small roller to establish an initial broken texture. The drawings employ the whites, blacks, and greys of the works in clay, along with a wider palette of yellows, ranging from pale ochre to deep egg yolk. Occasionally another colour appears, such as an incursion of vermillion or of scribbled orange. Many are spatially complex, with partially submerged pockets and delicate traceries of darkness and light. The abstract motifs deployed echo those of the ceramics, but are more expansively gestural, many of the sheets covered edge-to-edge, so that they appear as though fragments of a larger, potentially endless script or score. The dense blackness of certain drawings is comparable to those made in tarry paint-stick by the American Richard Serra, whilst their loping calligraphy, scribbled in horizontal lines like so much automatic writing, has something in common with that of another American, the painter Cy Twombly, at his most abstract.

Photograph: ‘Gatekeeper I’ and ‘Gatekeeper II’, hand built stoneware and slip, by Sarah Purvey. Photograph courtesy of the artist and Twenty Twenty Gallery.

Text © Ian Massey 2022

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