Master Of Illusion by Lesley Jackson, freelance writer, curator and design historian 2002
There is something intoxicatingly sensuous about the ceramics of Nicholas Arroyave Portela. Even taking into account the natural fluidity of soft clay, the way he gently massages the walls of his thrown vessels into rhythmic furrows and undulations suggests a heightened awareness of touch and flow. 'What I'm trying to capture is the sense of movement in a still object', he explains, drawing parallels with the watery effects of moiré silks. Arroyave-Portela has long been fascinated by the way fabric ripples. At college he took photographs of old textiles, which he used as the basis for a series of silkscreen prints. These interests later resurfaced in his ceramics , although translating such effects into solid clay proved extremely challenging from a technical point of view. Clay does not drape like fabric. It has to be fingered and coaxed into shape in a much more laborious way. The trick is to make the finished piece look natural, as though it has formed itself. 'Water finds its way naturally, I'm trying to emulate that naturalness. Clay can capture traces of what you want to be there.'
Arroyave-Portela's work is all about illusion. Not only the illusion of serendipity in the shaping of the clay, but also the illusion of softness and plasticity in the hard, brittle, fired ceramic pot. Shadows-partly real, partly illusory-add another dimension to the visual and tactile nuances of his work, effects he consciously exaggerates by applying fine sprayed slips to highlight and manipulate light and tone. After coating the exterior of the pot in one colour, a second layer is sprayed on selectively from the base, carefully angled upwards to pick out the relief contours. The startling intensity of Arroyave-Portela's pigments-more Mediterranean than English- and the stark contrasts between the colours he juxtaposes, are unusual in ceramics, reflecting his passion for modern art, notably the paintings of Mark Rothko and the sculptures of Anish Kapoor. But Arroyave-Portela is no painter or sculptor manqué; he has forged his own creative identity. Clay, for him, is the ideal medium; through it he can explore pure three-dimensional abstraction in a direct and uninhibited way.
Drawing attention to the abstract qualities of Arroyave-Portela's work is crucial. Although his pots are evocative of natural phenomena, his response to nature is lateral rather than literal. What interests him about water, for example , is not so much the urgent quality of movement, but its impact in shaping the physical world. His pots are less about the trickling of the brook or the vortex of the whirlpool, than the sculpting of the rocks over which the water flows. But Arroyave-Portela is only a virtual geologist. The contours on his vessels are eddies of the imagination. He does not actually go out and study in the field.
Arroyave-Portela is currently exploring two distinct vessel forms in tandem, although ideally he would like to move away from the prosaic concept of vessels and bowls. One group is bulbous or pendulous, with inverted rims. The other group has open, sweeping, everted shapes. 'Rims are important, reflecting the different pressure points. Forms often evolve from imagining the impact of internal forces on a thin membrane. I try to imagine how water might affect the shape of something soft like a plastic bag, causing it to bulge out under pressure, then collapse where there's no force of the simpler deflated forms. Some pieces suggest vacuum suction; others evoke dented sheet metal. Arroyave-Portela often surprises by setting up a dramatic contrast between the two sides of a vessel. From one angle they assume elegant classical proportions, from the other they are manifestly bruised. 'Giving pots an unexpected twist makes people more conscious of volume. The idea of volume runs through many of my pieces. I'm trying to evoke the impression of a fine structure encasing air'.
Arroyave-Portela's open bowl forms, although sculptural, are much simpler than his tall vessels, recalling the refined, organic shapes of post-war Scandinavian silver and glass. Precision rims are a feature of these pieces, although the main focus is on the poured slips and glazes used to decorate the well. Whereas the sprayed slip coating on the exterior is applied smoothly and evenly, the poured slips and glazes on the inside are swilled around freely, producing expressionistic splurges and painterly streaks and arcs. Some bowls are upright and elliptical, suggesting the prow of a boat or the spout of a jug. In this case the association with pouring seems doubly appropriate, although it can be read in different ways. Sometimes the glaze catches on the throwing lines. Sometimes it bites through the slip into the body, causing minute textural marks.
Juggling the tension between opposing elements is a key feature of Arroyave-Portela's ceramics, particularly the heightened contrast between shiny and matt. The dynamic interplay between the controlled exterior and the freely decorated interior is particularly important.
Recently, though, he has departed from this formula on a vessel called 'A River Runs Through it', by dribbling coloured slips down the gully on the outside of the piece. 'The pot records a memory of how it was created',he observes.
Another new departure in Arroyave-Portela's recent work is the cutting of fine slits in the body, recalling his earlier fascination with textile seams. 'Slicing through the clay highlights the thinness of the vessel, and makes the piece more sculptural. I've always had strong ideas, but you need to be able to master them technically in order to bring them off.' Sometimes the incisions are so fine that they appear to be painted on the surface, although the larger slits are like gashes or open wounds. Parallels with the slashed and pierced canvases of the Italian post –war artist and ceramic sculptor Lucio Fontana are by no means incidental.Arroyave-Portela is a great admirer of Fontana's work. 'Contemporary fine art is increasingly divorced from the visual.Fontana's work appeals to me because it is both intellectual and visual at the same time. But my work is not as raw as Fontana's. I'm trying to produce something flawless. I'm aiming for a calming mesmeric quality. I need to be relaxed in order to do good work.'
Although we often associate the sensuous with self–indulgence, in Arroyave-Portela's case this is yet another illusion. He conjures up trompe l'oeil sensuousness from real-life discipline and self-control.