Gillian Lowndes, Hanging scroll, 1995. Mixed media, including fiberglass strips dipped in slip, 145 x 27 cm. Photo: Jo Hounsome Photography

Gillian Lowndes

Bath, U.K.

The Holburne Museum

Nothing quite prepares you for the impact of Gillian Lowndes’s small sculptures, currently on view in “Radical Clay” (through April 21, 2024). Hung on the wall like totems or supported on horizontal surfaces, these works are raw, visceral, and instinctual.

Lowndes, who died in 2010, trained in ceramics, attending the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London from 1955 to 1958, at a time when experimentation was at a peak. Both teachers and students were at the heart of that movement for change, and the Central School was a crucible for the new, the inventive, and the downright strange. Still, it took a period of time spent in Africa (1970–72) and encounters with wooden sculptures, headdresses, textiles, and masks, often employing multiple materials in a single object, for Lowndes really to break free from ceramic and sculptural conventions.

She began using found and scavenged materials, testing their limits and interrogating their physical properties in the kiln. Copydex and PVA glue, Egyptian paste and fiberglass, nichrome wire and loofahs, morphed, melted, and sometimes burned off almost completely, transforming in ways that produced sinuous, disturbing objects. In some instances, Lowndes destroyed what she made, only to remake it in a different form from the broken fragments. Like talismans or totems of some unknown spiritual ritual, her materially transformed objects lie somewhere beyond understanding. Their often organic appearance is not necessarily so, save for the loofahs and horsehair, and yet some of the objects appear of animal or human origin, even when the scale is incongruous. Their grayish pallor lends them a skin-like appearance, drained of life or at its limits.

Fragile Egyptian paste squeezes unevenly through the gaps in wire mesh in works such as Puffball collage (c. 1990s). Elsewhere, thick hairs sprout from elongated sculptures, as in Hook Figure (2008), which has the added frisson of what appear to be animal claws top and bottom. Look closely, however, and it becomes apparent that at least one “claw,” probably not organic at all, is embossed with a number five on one side. In Hanging scroll (1995), coiled material studded with tacks hangs precariously from the wall. A fat, hirsute Tongue (2008) hangs on another wall. A series of smaller works, including Another Cup of Tea (2005) and Scrollscape with Nail (2003), sit inside a vitrine—tiny, vulnerable things, twisted and flaking in their isolation. The damage inflicted on these objects by firing is irreparable, lending them a deeply emotional quality, relics that draw viewers in and engage them psychologically, none more so than Almost off the Wall (not dated).

Lowndes described herself as a “gatherer of impedimenta,” and that precisely sums up her practice. She gathered some of the most innocuous, ordinary materials and combined them in ways that imbue them with meaning. Poignantly evocative of the human condition, Lowndes’s three-dimensional collages ooze, twist, pierce, and sprout across the surfaces of their corporeal and vulnerable forms.