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At the New Art Centre (NAC) in Wiltshire, borderless exchanges are de rigueur. Roche Court, the handsome early 19th-century house and orangery, is not only the home of co-director Madeleine Bessborough but also operates as a commercial gallery and sculpture park. Yet as you walk across the rolling lawns, with a Barbara Hepworth sculpture here, a Flanagan hare there, the line between gracious living and thrusting trade is imperceptible.
Nowhere is this truer than in the newest addition to the complex. With sleek, luminous, contemporary galleries that opened just a month ago, the Design House was built by architect Stephen Marshall, whose relationship with the NAC stems from its inception. This time, the plan was to create a new gallery which would focus on exploratory, cutting-edge design that crosses over into the sphere of contemporary art.
From those Renaissance artists who painted mythical scenes on the marriage chests of wealthy noble couples to Picasso’s cheeky, captivating ceramics, that relationship has always offered visual bounty. But the exhibition there this week offers not just the tried-and-tested formula of imaginative flair and pragmatic functionality. It also boasts a glamour and preciosity that linger in the memory of the beau monde who visited the vernissage — surely the most serene of dozens on Frieze Week’s VIP calendar — long after they had left the tree-dotted Wiltshire countryside behind.
Entitled Compressed Lines, the show marks a significant foray into the contemporary art world for Alexandra Jefford. Now 48, Jefford trained as an artist, specialising in printmaking, at Central Saint Martins. However, with small children to look after, Jefford concentrated on making jewellery because, as she puts it, she “needed a skill”.
Jefford’s words belie her remarkable craftsmanship. Her jewellery is characterised by clean, Bauhaus-inspired forms lifted to splendour thanks to her gift for embedding her metals with gemstones set in unpredictable, assymetrical positions.
Over the years, Jefford’s quirky marriage of minimalism and flamboyance has won her a glittering reputation. Her collectors include Keith Urban, who buys pieces for his wife Nicole Kidman, while in 2006 the V&A museum asked her to make a piece inspired by their Japanese collection. The result was her gold Samurai sword ring, which was part of a special edition that launched the museum’s new shop.
The latent abstraction that haunts her jewellery designs reveals that Jefford’s sculptural tendency was never buried very deep. Nevertheless few could have predicted the ingenuity of the works she is exhibiting at Roche Court.
Displayed on a long table in the centre of the light-filled gallery, each of the 10 diminutive pieces — the average size is no more than 150 x 150mm — comprises three elements. The base is carved into a spare, geometric marble block disturbed by occasional curved edges and cavities carved to Jefford’s designs by professional cutters. On top lie porcelain fragments whose papery ethereality is enhanced by frayed borders, enigmatic patterns and pencil lines. On or sometimes embedded within these mesmerising anti-plinths Jefford has placed jewels crafted primarily in gold, silver and diamonds.
The results are arresting, original hybrids of abjection and magnificence, ornament and object, industrial manufacturing and handmade artisanship. The key to their hypnotic quality are those frail ceramics with their mystifying, abstract skins. These, Jefford tells me, are created by rolling out the wet porcelain on to scraps of cardboard packaging so the latter’s mundane patterns are stamped on to the ceramic before it is glazed.
As for the jewels, which range from white-gold necklaces that flow across the ceramic like vapour trails to a diamond ring plunged into a tear in the porcelain, they are designed to be detached and worn. Yet so compelling are the sculptures in their entirety, many will surely remain art for art’s sake.
Asked for her inspiration, Jefford names a galaxy of artists, from Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson to Kandinsky. Yet her chief source of nourishment is provided by her own internal eye. “I start by drawing a line. I take a breath and I think. After many years of working in different mediums separately, I ask myself the question of why we separate?” she writes in a poetic text that accompanies the show.
Indeed, drawing is the lodestone of her imagination. “Why do I like pencil?” she says rhetorically when I ask her. “It’s the first thing that comes out . . . ” This essentialist aesthetic is fostered still by her regular attendance at life-drawing classes.
“People like to put people in boxes,” she muses, when questioned as to the differences between her identity as designer and artist. Yet as she points out that her jewellery and sculpture come from “the same hand, the same head”.
It’s relevant, too, that her father is a research scientist who lives, as she puts it fondly, in “an abstract world” and loves to write poetry and make music. He used to say he was an artist, she recalls, whose task was to “dream up compounds”. As a child, Jefford was sceptical of these claims, yet she says she loved to watch him drawing molecular structures.
She admits, however, that she is aware of a shift in her own imaginative byways when she turns from designing jewellery to drawing or sculpture. “When I’m making art, it’s like meditation. You’re not thinking ‘How is it going to be worn?’; ‘Is it going to fit?’ You can just keep pushing.”
If the unfinished, frontierless brilliance of Compressed Lines is a measure, Jefford’s interior journey has only just begun.
To October 9, sculpture.uk.com
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