Sunday, 2 August 2015

What is handwoven tapestry’s place in contemporary art? - 31st July

On Friday I attended the symposium on tapestry organised by West Dean College. This was one of those rare occasions which, if you are a little bit interested in tapestry as I am, you grab and join. I took a holiday day and went along.

A number of tapestry weavers spoke of their work: Anne Jackson, Shelley Goldsmith, Katherine Swailes, Philip Sanderson and the felt maker Liz Clay, and there were talks by others to contextualise tapestry weave, Lesley Millar and Yvonna Demczynska from Flow Gallery. It was a very successful day, the talks were varied and showed how broad or narrow you can interpret this particular weaving process.

Jackson's work on witchcraft, its history and metaphorical uses in current language was informed by a depth of reading over several years. She uses a knotting technique using half hitches which allows for flexibility of shape, and she can still achieve a great deal of detail in her expression. Swailes showed pictures from her background in costume making, and I was very happy to see she had made costume for Cate Blanchett in Oscar and Lucinda, which I had recently watched again. Katherine uses materials as a starting point in her personal works, but also works at West Dean as a studio weaver, interpreting art for commissions. Similarly Philip Sanderson is a studio weaver there, but he also teaches and has his own practice, having worked on major commissions for Parliament, Portcullis House.

Shelley Goldsmith described her work, which was conceptually oriented, using both tapestry, print, stitch and any other techniques that would support her ideas. Hers was a very lively talk and there were many ideas present in her work, which she described as mixed media. Liz Clay on the other hand is a felt maker who works experimentally sometimes for the haute couture industry. She is a highly reflective practitioner, deeply interested in her technique and has been looking at British wools and their uses in felt making, especially those wools normally disposed of. She had spent a month with two Aubusson-trained weavers in Felletin, working on a shared project linking tapestry and felt, creating in the end a very fine tapestry made in 13 long strips mounted side-by-side to enable the variety of techniques to be cohesively joined. 

The talk by the Flow Gallery owner placed tapestry amongst other crafts in order to show how crafts can be marketed to the collector's market. There were images of the gallery and how it had been re-designed moving away from being a white cube to be more 'home'-like. She also discussed the large crafts fairs such as Collect in London and SOFA in the US. Interestingly she had a liking for Aino Kajaniemi, so I am quite excited about that and will go to the gallery when I am next in London, I love Kajaniemi's work.

Lesley Millar discussed how tapestry might be a vehicle for dissent and subversion. She started off talking about Hannah Ryggen's work - as I mentioned in a different post, Hannah Ryggen is now being re-discovered in discussions on the politics of fibre art - and went on to show a number of tapestry artists' work. On a couple of occasions she stated that this work was both beautiful and subversive, a point that I am struggling with. My question would be; at which point does the beauty of an object over-ride the point being made in the work - if an object is to speak of difficult themes, how 'difficult' should the object be? If one chooses to be representational in one's expression how does one speak - using an illustrative style, or metaphorical, or both?

In any case in finishing off with Millar's talk, the day left much to think about.

After the talk there was a tour of the West Dean tapestry studio, and then on to a private view of the current tapestry exhibition, Hallreef, which had quite a number of tapestries on show, in a smaller format, it covered works by both professionals, new graduates and amateurs, which was refreshing. All in all it was a full day and I went home feeling there is still some mileage in tapestry, and so much more to think about.

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