Sculpture in 20th-century Britain: A Guide to Sculptors in the Leeds Collections

Clare Lilley, 2003


Since the early 1980s, drawing has become Jenny West's primary concern, She approaches the discipline as a sculptor, considering how the strange objects within her drawings might be made into three-dimensional works. 'Crossed Beds' (1983) is one of six drawings marking the transition between her making sculpture and making drawings about sculpture. Of this transitional period she says: I was becoming more interested in the way that I could change and manipulate an object through drawing, in order to communicate and express a sensibility that touched on uncertainty, flux, the ephemeral ... The object was no longer tangible or real but melted into the space around it, becoming in turns monumental or minute; architectural or domestic. (1)

Architecture, such as the extraordinary 17th-century astronomical observatories at Jaipur and Delhi, as well as the domestic space, has been explored through drawing by West. She is currently investigating readymade objects such as sieves and colanders by unfolding and extending their form and interior space into the space around them, using thread, pigment, pins and soot. She is a pragmatist interested in the immediate world and in the formal aspects that certain objects can offer, as well as in their symbolic connotations.

More importantly she is interested in functional objects, and in her work these have included thrones, boats (moored and travelling), Samurai armour and the Indian observatories. West's knowledge of architecture is tangible, and during this transitional phase she was particularly interested in Japanese dry- jointed wood and paper buildings and was developing ideas for meticulous and simply made sculptures that could be taken apart and reconstructed. She had also recently returned from a trip to Egypt, where, in the Cairo Museum, she had been fascinated by ancient Egyptian furniture, hinted at in 'Crossed Beds'. Yet it is the poetic and intangible which is most evocative for West: 'I've never been interested in drawing anything in front of me - an object. I invent.' In her transformation of the material world she reveals a pleasure in uncertainty, of shifting forms and ideas.

'Crossed Beds' was made shortly after West learned how to use a linear perspective system, in this case a two-point perspective, which is mathematically complicated and very accurate. This system (which she has continued to develop) has parallels with the construction of real objects in that the drawing has to be built up over time, slowly, carefully and with precision. The paper has been inked, rubbed back with fine sandpaper or washed with water to reveal the absorbed paint and graphite, and reworked so that a process and history are referenced. This creates a transparent and fragile surface quality and content, giving 'a desirable reality - one that can never really exist'.

West acknowledges the influence of frescoes by Fra Angelico and Giotto at this time, particularly the notion of place and art being interrelated, as in a church, each underscoring the purpose and meaning of the other. This is an area she continues to investigate. Also acknowledged are Japanese ukiyo-e or 'fleeting or floating world' prints in which finely detailed, translucent screens and fabrics partly obscure an intimate scene. These influences are used purposefully, and sometimes bodies of work derive from photographic images in books rather than from life experiences.

Both in conversation and in her work, West is wary of making statements and is more concerned with that which slips beyond reach. 'Crossed Beds' offers tantalising glimpses into an invented world and reveals a fascination with the material and psychological spaces in which people live.


1. Quotations are from the author's conversations with the artist at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, August 2002