Jeff Lowe knows a thing or two about making sculpture. He’s been creating rather lovely pieces since the age of fifteen, having studied in the field at Saint Martin’s under the tutelage of the likes of famous ‘New Generation’ British sculptors William Tucker and Anthony Caro.
At the age of 21, Jeff became the youngest man to ever hold a one man show at London’s Leicester Galleries and he’s represented Britain at the Paris Biennale. He currently lives in Faversham at the impressive Lime Works, a former water purification plant built in the 30s. A building he’s had restored that includes vast studio spaces built, where he can construct his large scale sculptures.
It’s here where he’s created his newest series of largescale sculptures all shaped from thin curved sheets of aluminium which form abstract circular structures. His sculptures explore volume, space and layering taking inspiration from architectural forms.
Ahead of his January exhibition, ‘In the Close Distance’, at Pangolin London, we spoke to Jeff about the upcoming show, studying under sculpting greats and the creative process that leads to his fantastic artwork.
The MALESTROM: You must be excited about the new exhibition?
Jeff Lowe: It’s a real change for me. I’ve been making sculptures since I was about fifteen, but most of the sculptures I’ve made over the last three years have been very geometric, using very heavy materials like cast iron, with some of them weighing two or three tonnes, so they’re slow to make.
It’s partly due to me moving to a new location in the countryside, the building I’m in is so inspiring. I had to stop work for around five months while we did the first stages of the building of the house, it’s quite rare for me to stop work. When I started back again I began using aluminium, which is very light material and easy to roll. And then I got good working with CAD drawings to produce the holes you see in them.
I was trying to make sculptures that were closer to collage in a way, three dimensional and quick to make. The process was very organic and flowing. It’s been an amazingly productive year, I think I’ve made about 22 large sculptures during it.
TM: Where do you get your inspiration from? Is it the environment that surrounds you?
JL: It’s a mixture, a balance between things that I might want to be interested in, in a formal sense of the word. There’s always been a strong architectural sense about the sculptures. A relationship to the body and physical objects. I don’t work from figures, I don’t work from the landscape, although these new pieces are kind of curved and the tops of the elements that run around have a sort of landscape feel. They also retain this sense of architectural windows, openings, doors.
One of the interesting things about the Lime Works is that because it’s so open you can see from one space to another through big openings and inside and outside. It actually works like a big sculpture, it’s as close as I can get to a sculpture I would like to make. But when I’m working it’s very much with the materials, I try not to have too much of an idea beforehand, I let the materials suggest a direction. I basically start something and then I work on it and it develops and develops until a finishing point.
TM: What is your working process? Do you start with sketching things out?
JL: I don’t do any drawings specifically for sculptures. I do quite a lot of work on paper and at the moment I’m working at the Cambridge Print Studio. I went there a few weeks ago to do a series of unique prints on silkscreen, which I’ve never done. That was very compatible with the sculpture work as it’s about layers and seeing through one layer to the next and the overlapping of shapes and colours, so I was very keen to go down there and work with them.
My working process with these sculptures was that I worked on drawings on a computer, which went to a laser cutter and they cut shapes out of the aluminium. So, it was a balance between being quite specific about some of the shapes that I wanted to use, but also a kind of randomness that they weren’t made to go in a certain position, they were just shapes and raw materials I could then work with.
So around twenty big panels arrived, I laid them out around the studio and then I’d get interested in particular shapes. I work with an assistant, we then put them through rollers and curve them. They then sit in the studio and things start to be drawn together as they’re clamped and bolted.
For the first time, these sculptures haven’t been welded, with fabrication that’s nearly always been the case. What I wanted with these was the flexibility to take them apart and change them. So we used a system initially of just clamping them together and when they got to a stage I was happy with I’d drill and bolt them. Very basic tools compared to the more sophisticated level of making I’d used in the past.
TM: What’s the main difference in working with aluminium?
JL: Obviously it’s much lighter. Interestingly these sculptures have almost a paper-like quality to them and the colour added to that. When I first started them it wasn’t my intention to use colour, it might have been painted, but just one colour. Then as I worked on them I felt that I needed to differentiate different elements, not just through shape, but through the way you saw through to a different colour.
So, I got really keen on using colours, even ones that were totally opposed to my colour sense, ones I didn’t really like. I found it quite a challenge. It came through in the prints I did, where I used colours that were odd and difficult to use.
TM: What was the spark that got you into sculpture?
JL: My Dad was always a maker of things. Whether it be furniture or whatever, he was a real perfectionist. I helped him a bit when I was young. When he restored our house I learned all kinds of different trades and processes. I liked making things and I suppose by accident at school I was put in for this sculpture making O-Level, and I remember my first piece was carved. It wasn’t just the making of it, I had to go through different processes, taking it from clay into plaster, and I really enjoyed that whole thing. I didn’t really know that much about sculpture, but something drew me to it.
At the time the names were Henry Moore, Giacometti and figurative sculptors like that. Very quickly I moved from figurative sculpture to abstract. Some of the earliest pieces I made would probably be described as minimal. Then I saw a sculpture by Tony Caro, one of the ‘New Generation’, that had been very strong in the 60s and it turned out they came to see my work in Leicester where I was on a foundation course and they invited me to go to Saint Martins.
I studied under the likes of Tony Caro and William Tucker, who then were huge names in sculpture. I got to know Tony well and Bill I’m still friends with. I just admired that kind of work and I wanted to make abstract sculptures and pieces that pushed boundaries.
TM: What was it like working under such greats in their field?
JL: It was an amazing time. We talked a lot. You’d have to put your work into the hall every week and discuss it. Every Thursday, eight to ten other sculptors came in, Barry Flanaghan, Tony Caro, the list was incredible. To have that many great artists look at your work was great. There wasn’t that much one to one, but you’d learn so much just by having these group discussions about sculpture.
At that time Bill Tucker was writing a book called ‘The Language of Sculpture’, which became a really famous book, we’d go into seminars and discuss the direction of that book. So it was just generally a fantastic time. Then towards the end of my studies, I was approached by Leicester Galleries, which was the place that first showed Picasso, and they offered me a show. At that time I was an early morning cleaner, starting work at 6am, finishing at 8.45am, before heading to college and working till seven in the evening before heading back to my six alarm clocks so I could get up and do it all again the next day.
So, my life changed completely. I went from being a cleaner getting up at the crack of dawn who couldn’t support myself to having a studio and an assistant before I’d even left art school. It was fantastic.
TM: Going back to your creative process, is there a certain amount of trial and error in the way you make?
JL: It’s a huge part of my process. I’m not against accidents. I try and find ways to make the sculptures less conscious, I want them to be surprising. So it’s not unusual for me to build something up and then take parts off and then realise having taken the bits off actually it’s a lot better. Chopping away is as important as constructing. There are lots of things that happen along the way and if you’ve been making sculptures a long time I guess you learn to encourage those things.
TM: When you’re making your art are you thinking who it’s actually for?
JL: I’m not really. I mean everyone likes to have exhibitions and to like the work. But I’m conscious of the fact I make things that are quite extreme. So they won’t be liked or understood by everyone. It’s a bit like being a poet these days. Even though the art world is massive at the moment the number of people that genuinely understand it is quite small.
Certainly, the people that really understand the work that I do. I don’t mind that. Having said that, with these most recent sculptures that I’ve been working on, there’s an element to them that has quite a sophisticated level, but there are people who have seen them who enjoy them, not necessarily understanding them fully, but there’s something about them that seems to give pleasure to people.
TM: Does it matter to you what people think? Do you ever try and overhear conversations at your private views?
JL: I think it’s always interesting when you get young kids in a gallery and you say to them, “what do you think this looks like?” It’s interesting that they can come up with things that are so revealing to the sense of what you’re actually trying to make. I do listen to people, I remember being in Tony Caro’s studio and he used to say if the bin man comes in he said he was always interested to hear about his work.
At first, people tend to have an almost dismissive view that abstract art is a big con and anyone can do that. But if you talk to people and try and get them more involved in it, they really do then start to get it.
TM: What’s next for you? Are you going to continue working with aluminium?
JL: I can never tell. I’d like the sculptures to get bigger. I’m working on all different scales at the moment, from small pieces of jewellery and tiny sculptures, right the way up to the large sculptures. They’re not huge, around two metres across, and a metre and a half high.
Because I’m surrounded by land, I’m conscious of the landscape now and because I’ve usually made sculptures that have been for galleries, that I’ve made in indoor spaces, now I’m really getting interested in working outside and with bigger elements. The works almost finished now for the exhibition, so the next phase will probably be more experimental and I’ll try out some different things.
Jeff’s show In the Close Distance runs from 15th January – 22nd February 2020 at Pangolin London
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