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‘Little Equinox’ byWilliam Pye, on show at Osborne Samuel

Exhibitions Liquid gold Andrew Lambirth

William Pye Osborne Samuel, 23a Bruton Street, W1, until 2 October

William Pye: sculpture Pangolin London, 90 York Way, N1, until 24 December

William Pye has observed, somewhat wryly, that he’s better known among architects and designers than he is by the art-loving public. There is a simple reason for this: in recent years he has had very few exhibitions in galleries. His work used to be a regular feature of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, but he is not an RA, and an artist of his stature does not readily court rejection. After a run of showing at the RA for some 30 seasons, he was turned down twice in the hurly-burly of general submission. The panjandrums of Burlington House missed a trick when they passed over Pye.

For, despite the lack of gallery presence, he’s an extremely distinguished public sculptor, his curly tube-and-dish steel sculpture ‘Zemran’ being a familiar landmark on the South Bank, his cones of water ‘Slipstream’ and ‘Jetstream’ improving the ambience of Gatwick airport, and recent commissions including major works in Sweden, Norway, Canada, Greece and Russia. He has even designed a font for Salisbury Cathedral that was installed and consecrated in 2008. Pye’s work has an enviably international presence in both public and private spaces.

‘Zemran’ (1972) was something of a turning point. Up till then Pye had made semi-abstract sculpture from industrial steel tubing, which tended to be either polished or chromed to maximise its reflective properties. After it, he concentrated on less substantial effects, focusing on the illusive and ephemeral through the use of curtains and shafts of tensioned steel cables.As he said in 1979, ‘All my work attempts to combine an architectural experience while retaining the sense of object, of self-containment rather than theatrical space.’ In the early 1980s he rediscovered water, after an epiphany in a steep Welsh lane during a sudden downpour. The rhythmic rippling of the film of water over the lane’s surface was a revelation and a reminder. Henceforth, he would devote much of his energy to exploring ways of using water inventively and imaginatively in sculpture.

Pye manipulates water as if it were a material like iron or aluminium, conjuring seemingly solid towers or columns of the stuff, making it into a trellis, vortex or cataract that spills only when and where it should. His control is superb, and rather astonishing.Water is difficult to handle with accuracy and interest. It is wilful, always trying to find its own level or the path of least resistance. But here is a sculptor who has mastered both hydraulics and hydrostatics — liquid moving and liquid at rest. He is a kinetic sculptor who also deals in stationary forms; many of his greatest effects arise from the ever-changing relationship between moving and permanently sited elements.

The son of an engineer, William Pye was born in London in 1938, but spent much of his youth at a Surrey cottage with a stream and ponds nearby. There he made his very first sculptures, including a waterfall when he was 17. His family is an exceptionally gifted one, and not only did he have an aunt, Ethel Pye, who was a sculptor that exhibited with Henry Moore in the 1930s, but another aunt was a bookbinder, a great uncle was an ambidextrous surgeon, and his cousin David was a craftsman and writer who became professor of furniture design at the Royal College of Art.

Young William already knew that art was his way of understanding the world. He studied atWimbledon School ofArt and the Royal College, and found himself increasingly drawn to sculpture, reinforced by early visits to Florence and Greece. He began to make organic modelled forms that hung from rugged timber structures, recalling the temple architecture of Greece and Japan. The reflective steel sculptures evolved from these first environmental pieces, evincing a greater degree of sensuality in their use of materials, a quality that was to become a trademark.

Reflection remains a central preoccupation. Bringing the sky or the surroundings into a sculpture by means of reflection is a way of setting up a new scheme of resonances and references. It helps also to make the work seem effortless or natural —which has long been one of Pye’s aims — by investing the silvery mirror surface of metal or water with a wide range of colour and form, a constantly shifting panorama as the reflected world goes about its business. Much of Pye’s thought is concerned with placing his sculpture within a pre-existing architectural context or landscaped garden setting. He says,‘I can think of nothing more rewarding than to integrate permanently the old with the new.’ He has always wanted an organic quality to inhabit his work, a sort of comingalive; reflection and water are the two principal methods by which he achieves this.

Pye’s career can be traced through the fascinating narrative of the densely illustrated book he has just compiled (William Pye: His Work and His Words, Brown & Brown, £45). To launch it, two concurrent exhibitions present different aspects of his art. At Osborne Samuel is a show of previously unseen small sculptures. I particularly liked a bronze still-life and the series of Welsh hill-form pieces inspired by Cader Idris, which powerfully evoke a synthesis of geometry and landscape. Meanwhile, at Pangolin London in Kings Place, a sampling of his water sculptures has been installed to spectacular effect. None of these are large works, but they demonstrate Pye’s remarkable versatility and invention, from the emblematic patterns of ‘Cosmadish’ to the climactic whirlpool of ‘Scylla’ and the hypnotic explosions of ‘Starburst III’. Magical.


the spectator | 18 September 2010 |