March 26, 2014 5:46 pm

Kim Lim: Carvings, Roche Court, Wiltshire, UK – review

The Singapore-born artist’s work combines concision of form with a vision of elemental forces

'Padma', left, and 'Slate Relief'

Set amid lush Wiltshire countryside, the New Art Centre’s luminous gallery at Roche Court is an ideal setting for Kim Lim. She was, after all, one of the first artists to be exhibited there, back in 1993; and although her reputation has long been overshadowed by that of her husband, William Turnbull – the fate of many female artists who marry male painters or sculptors – the new show proves that Lim, who died in 1997 aged 61, deserves to be celebrated as a subtle, potent sculptor and printmaker in her own right.

Born in Singapore, which she left at 18 to study in London at St Martin’s School of Art, Lim began her career by carving in wood. But not for long: marble, granite and Portland stone dominate this exhibition. At first, linear precision seems to dominate her sculpture: she almost appears to be drawing on the stone’s surface with her tools, deploying a spare, minimal exactitude that marks her out from so many of her British contemporaries.

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Although she shared Turnbull’s fruitful fascination with Brancusi, Lim developed a highly personal and distinctive vision. Growing up in Singapore gave her a far greater awareness of eastern art, and she continued to travel widely after making London her permanent home in 1960. Ancient art impressed her just as much as modernist experimentation; her work often evokes architectural forms reminiscent of ruined temples.

As its title suggests, “Column S” looks like the last remaining fragment of some archaic edifice, still defiantly erect, even vigorous: its Portland stone surface seems alive with the restless rhythms that Lim carved there. Working without any assistants, she was an immensely energetic woman, and succeeded in imparting this vitality to her work. “Source II”, a robust granite piece surely inspired by weathered boulders, still appears capable of growth. Even a sculpture as primitive as “Untitled 2”, a grey granite piece rising from a stone base, bulges with inner strength.

Sometimes, Lim played with opposite extremes of handling in a single work. Carved from Carrara marble, “Trace II” exposes at the top a corner treated with deliberate roughness. A tension is created between this area of apparent decay and the lines incised so precisely on the side, between casual destruction and preservation. Lim’s awareness of such oppositions may have been sharpened by her childhood experiences, when she witnessed the occupation of Singapore by Imperial Japanese forces.

Plenty of other possible references suggest themselves in this rewarding exhibition. A 1984 marble carving called “Padma” reminded me of a seated human figure whose limbs are folded tightly against each other. A dark “Slate Relief”, made a decade afterwards, is like a doughty tree-trunk asserting itself in some shadowy forest. Although Lim remained an abstract artist, she was unafraid of suggesting links with the visible world. A 1975 “Etching Series” may look minimal, but its forms conjure references to buttresses and windows. She gave a later print series the unequivocal title “Four Seasons”, and the aquatint called “Summer” celebrates an almost painterly love of shimmering sunlight.

Most of the time, though, she focused on sculptures, whose affinity with natural forms is heightened at Roche Court by the generous garden views. Though Lim’s studio was in London, much of her art celebrates the restless motion of the elements, particularly water. “River-Run” transforms a substantial chunk of Portland stone into an evocation of incessant flowing, Lim’s horizontal incisions implying a powerful current. The compact “Sea Stone II” comprises curved shapes reminiscent of waves, which surge over the marble and plunge down the sides towards a simple white plinth beneath. “Naga” (1984), the most inviting sculpture on display, undulates across the floor like some tidal stream, its seven pieces also suggesting stepping stones.

Concision need not imply a lack of power; quite the contrary. The outstanding “Rain Stone” (1994) is a marble block striated with diagonal lines; you get a sense both of the sculptor slashing away at the stone, and of raindrops spattering down in a storm. (The impression was compounded during my visit by the sculpture’s positioning in a glass box projecting into an open courtyard, and some inclement weather.) As this quiet revelation of a show makes clear, Lim’s ability to ally minimal forms with a vision of elemental forces yielded a powerful body of work.

Until May 25, sculpture.uk.com

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