Out of the ashes
Justin Knowles At Austin Desmond Fine Art, Pied Bull Yard, 68 Gt Russell St, London WC1, until 14 November
Austin Desmond is a gallery that since its foundation at Sunninghill in Surrey in 1979, and subsequent move to Bloomsbury, opposite the British Museum, has promoted the category of art known as 'Modern British', in which it was a pioneer. It has mounted exhibitions of British artists of essentially Modern character 'from 1910 onwards - the date of Roger Fry's first Post-Impressionist exhibition'.
They have tended to be artists who had a significant reputation in their time, often submerged by the tide of American-influenced art of an inflated scale from the 1960s onwards, and so there has been an element of rediscovery.Austin Desmond also continues to promote the work of contemporary British artists (including occasionally a ceramicist) of a humane and intellectual character and manageable scale.
Their current and immediately past exhibitions illustrate these themes. Just finished is a joint show of the ceramicists Jason Wason and Yasuo Terada. Wason, born in Liverpool, is arguably Bernard Leach's last true pupil, Terada is the scion of a longstanding family of Japanese potters and a master of raku kiln construction, a medium in which Wason excels.
The two worked together in Japan and subsequently in Cornwall, but Wason is by no means a tame follower of the Japaneseinfluenced tradition. Indeed, he is arguably the 'brutalist' of the ceramic world, his pots often studded like a biker's jacket, who appreciates the feeling that they 'have been to hell and back' in the high temperature raku firing process. The powerful geometry and harsh textures of his pots owe as much to Africa as Japan. Terada's work is softer, more crumbly - often literally fractured and repaired with gold.
In complete contrast to this is the current show of the sculpture of Justin Knowles, which follows on from a major British Council-supported retrospective at the National Technical Museum in Prague. This is arguably a rediscovery, though of a different sort, because Knowles' work has always taken on board the American influence. But after showings at the famous Whitechapel Young Contemporaries exhibitions of the 1960s, Knowles' work was almost all destroyed in a studio fire in 1973.This seems to have led to a long period of near silence from which he only began to re-emerge in the early 1990s, often picking up themes from 30 years earlier.
Where Wason and Terada's work was rough, textured or rounded, Knowles' is highly polished and rectilinear. He uses what seem like the very simplest of formal means -- such as a pile of gold-painted blocks like a child's play bricks - to make witty compositions. Highly polished glass cubes are stacked up, creating kaleidoscopic patterns of internal reflection which move constantly with the viewer - mobiles without moving parts. Play is made with the differing translucency and colour saturation of rectangular blue glass blocks, depending on whether they are seen end-on or across. Sheet metal panels, of slender section and dead-flat coloured surface, are fixed to the wall in commanding but very simple designs.
Despite the High-Tech image of his work, Knowles admits to being a technophobe ('I will not use a computer other than via a third person'), whose work is made-to-order by others - a specification art. But he points to the spiritual content of his work, honed by many visits to the Buddhist East, and a threepart blue-glass 'altar group' stands in the cathedral at Exeter, his native city.
James Dunnett is an architect in London