Living Dangerously by Emmanuel Cooper 2002
Risk is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when looking at ceramics, but when an artist pushes at technical and aesthetic boundaries it can add an element of piquancy. There is an intriguing element of risk in the bowls and vessel forms of Nicholas Arroyave-Portela; the walls are so lean and minimal, the edges so crisp and precise, the undulating surfaces both controlled and wayward, the contrasting/complementary colours in a constant state of movement, while the delicate bases have a poised strength. At their strongest, Arroyave-Portela's ceramics have a sense of growth and expansion, an inner vitality, a purposeful exploration of space and volume.
The awareness of inner space, one of the chief preoccupations in the work of any artist producing three-dimensional objects with hollow interiors, is a particular concern in Arroyave-Portela's ceramics, which he approaches laterally rather than directly. When talking about his ceramic vessels and wall pieces Arroyave-Portela recalls the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tsu who observed that the water that flows into the earthenware vessel takes on its form, and this space –imaginary and real-is in his mind as he works. The analogy with water is especially apt given Arroyave-Portela's concern with evoking movement and flow, whether by gently manipulating the shape of his expansive, extrovert bowls or working the surface of the tall vessels. With their slightly inward curving form these are secret spaces, only seen by those diligent enough to peer inside.
Unlike many potters, Arroyave-Portela's obsession with clay started early on when he was at nursery school in his hometown of Oxford and never really disappeared. At St Edward's school, also in Oxford, he was keen to explore other avenues before committing himself to ceramics, and obtained a raft of A levels in addition to art. But in the excellent ceramics department, through inspirational teaching by Rosy Hutchinson, a recent graduate from west surrey institute at Farnham, he became more involved with clay and its possibilities. During his one year foundation at Banbury he deliberately chose to work with other materials to challenge any preconceptions about his commitment to clay, but in the end ceramics won and he was accepted on to the BA ceramics course at Bath.
The three years at Bath provided the ideal combination of instruction and stimulation. Throwing became his obsession, and he benefited from expert advice given by lecturers such as Morgan Hall, and from the fluid, free approach of John Colbeck. This he particularly enjoyed for the sheer pleasure of pulling, stretching and shaping clay rather than following the rigours of producing repetitive functional ware. At Bath he started to develop the technique of pulling the walls up in one long continuous movement and stiffening them with a heat gun before extending them further.
In the city he also discovered Bath's costume museum where he became fascinated by the quality of different fabrics such as seersucker, the reflective qualities of moiré silk with it's watermarked patterning, and the way a seam could define form. In London he saw and admired the huge, earth-like forms of the Spanish artist Claudi Casanovas, and the abstract sculptures of Anish Kapor, which seemed so perfect and complete, all of which encouraged him to explore what clay could be made to do. After graduation he came to London and for some years worked in Balls Pond studio with Kate Malone, developing and refining his throwing, and enjoying the close contact with other ceramists. In 2000 he, together with a group of his fellow ceramists, acquired a complex of recently built studios in Hackney, where he now works.
Urban potting, while imposing limitations on space that tends to favour detailed, finely finished work rather than quantity production, inevitably carries a sense of city life, an involvement with the here and now, be it the latest exhibition, the most recent opening or new opportunities. As a maker of 'one off sculptural vessels', Arroyave-Portela is in a perfect position to respond to new developments and evolve his ideas. He likes to refer to his pieces as pots, which, while implying some ordinary quality, subverts expectations, for they are far from ordinary, either in scale, quality or ambition.
Since leaving college, Arroyave-Portela has honed his making technique. The walls are made as thinly as possible by a lengthy, repeat process of throwing and stiffening until the desired thickness is obtained. The basic shape of the tall, swelling vessels is organic or pebble-like, and derives in part from experiments that involved filling plastic bags with water to see how the stress between surface, volume and weight created form. When the throwing is complete , and just before the point at which the walls become leather hard, manipulation begins. Inspired by such phenomena as the wrinkled surfaces of fruit as they dry and lose moisture, the contour lines on maps and the crumpling of paper, he starts to work the walls. This involves supporting and pushing with his fingers from both the outside and the inside to create a series of wriggling lines that take on a life of their own, suggesting the activity of some sort of living organism. The marks left by the retreating tide on sand or the burrowings of some underground animal, also come to mind. On some pieces the patterning is more ordered and rhythmical, implying a more definite structure.
In some recent vessels surface and form have become linked in other, more dramatic ways. In these pieces Arroyave-Portela has started to cut the wall, heightening awareness of the inner and outer form, disturbing the patterning with a disconcerting opening. While recalling the canvas slashes of Luciano Fontana, on Arroyave-Portela's three dimensional forms the opening is more integrated, complete and inviting. For Arroyave-Portela the slash opens up the inside, providing both a door into and an exit from the dark interior.
The bowl-like forms-they are not functional in any conventional way-pose opposite but related problems. Technically they are a tour de force, with many standing thirty or more centimetres high and over fifty across, clear evidence of the potter going to the edge of a thrown form. Once thrown no reworking or turning is possible and the making process is slow. On a good day he may produce one or possibly two pieces, but occasionally days go by when the forms remain elusive and no pots get made. Any pieces about which he is uncertain get put back into the bin. At the right moment in the drying process Arroyave-Portela starts to manipulate the walls, squeezing the form, pushing in part of a side, creating sensual landscapes made up of gently undulating hills and valleys. When dry, the bottoms are sanded smooth, as no turning is possible.
Spraying them on the outside with a terra sigillata slip, which gives a satin-like non-reflective surface, completes all Arroyave-Portela's pieces. Colours, inspired by the variations in shot silk, are chosen carefully to contrast or compliment each other, and are sprayed from different angles so they heighten the surface modelling, virtually adding a fourth dimension. Particularly effective combinations are terracotta and cobalt blue, and light and dark cerulean. The insides have a high gloss finish that suggest the reflectivity of water and serve as a contrast with the matt exteriors.
Paradoxically, the delicacy of the fragile-looking bowls, with their taut, skin-like walls, is part of their strength. Open and outward flowing, soaring up from a tiny foot, the forms appear to grow and sway. On both the tall vessels and bowls the rims serve as a line linking outer and inner form and have a poetic force in defining the shape. With throwing, modelling and finishing honed to perfection, there are no splits, cracks or runs to disturb the whole. Living dangerously can pay rich dividends.