Tapestry is a curious form of artistic expression. It is constructed textile whose origins lie in a dim and distant past and whose present continues to evolve. Once a valued accompaniment to personal wealth and courtly prestige it adorned both public and private spaces, a backdrop of Arcadian scenes or a visual record of historic events displayed at a scale that was at one with the architectural wall: it covered the grimness and often greyness of stone with colour and shape.
As most of us live our lives on smaller scales and with the incessant movement and colour on the flat screen that has migrated to our walls from the box in the corner, the art of tapestry has moved into the art gallery. This contemporary space that has overtaken our public buildings and our places of worship, as places we visit in meditative quiet and make a slow procession from one marvel of making to another.
A whole exhibition of the art of contemporary tapestry demands an effective and spacious environment, one that can at best provide a mix of daylight and artificial light. Because of the size of individual pieces, rarely less than 100 x 100 cm, to look and take in the full effect there has to be distance: to stand back without distraction of other work. In this respect the curation of Here & Now, an exhibition of contemporary tapestry at the National Centre for Craft & Design was entirely successful. Eight countries, twenty-one artists and twenty-six tapestries was more than enough to occupy several slow hours of careful viewing.
I began my viewing adventure in company of three artists whose proximity in the gallery was possibly accidental but had been previously grouped together in The Power of Slow a 2013 show curated by the American Tapestry Alliance. Now in 2016 Philip Sanderson, Sara Brennan and Jilly Edwards have come together again, and the work is a little different whilst still retaining important hallmarks. The Windblown Tree by Philip Sanderson, shown in The Power of Slow, has now been magnified many times over making a vast, life-sized textile piece that has an exuberance and restlessness at the same time. With funding from the Theo Moorman Trust this work has an experimental edge to it, utilising wider warp spacing to ‘bring a greater dynamic and spontaneity to the weaving process’. The weft is a turbulent surface of black and grey wools and ‘found materials’ (mostly digital print cotton). When you get up close the hand automatically reaches out to touch and stroke the everywhichway movement that is so much a part of the weft of this piece. The catalogue illustration shows a Hockneyesqe photo-collage of the parts of a windblown tree blown into a horizontal form by some tempestuous storm. Unlike his earlier tree, ‘Nr. The Cheeswring’ 2007, which was contained in a 170 x 70 cm frame, this Windblown Tree is only the tree; the sky and the ground have been dispensed with, cut away.
On an adjacent wall there are more trees, this time by Sara Brennan. Two pieces called Deep Forest. They are almost identical but for different colourings of sky and a band that forms a kind of base to the images – a skyline of forest trees set against a neutral sky. Again there is a progression from the work shown in The Power of Slow. Gone are the fluffy clouds, blue sky and the sensation of seeing trees and sky from what seems to be lying position looking up in ‘Broken White Band with Pale Blue II’ 2011. Whilst admiring the prodigious technical achievement here, and the curiosity that the use of vintage yarns might bring to the result, this is a view of a natural world that seems cold and remote. The fractal-like self-similarities of the forest trees in silhouette are the sole interest as a play of forms. It is what one sees as evening descends in a wooded place, when individual trees lose their profile and become a flat one dimensional space as it becomes a dark, unremitting expanse of forest.
As a complete and welcome contrast to windblown trees and dark forests Jilly Edwards takes us into a golden landscape of forms abstracted from looking at a landscape and seeing it reflected back. This is watercolour painting in tapestry, the blended textures, the colours and lines of natural forms and their intricate shadowing. Within Walls: Kestle Barton was as gloriously surprising and as various as anything I’ve seen of this artist. I would have taken it home if I could, knowing it would hold the magic of Cornish light even in a dark December day. I hadn’t expected another accompanying work, Diary of 52, which she describes as ‘weaving weekly all the ends that are left’. It is a celebratory piece of invention confining tapestry to the frame of a CD case (one for each week), and, if my peculiar analytical brain is correct, as the invention flows from top to bottom there is a Golden Section moment at around the fortieth image where the movement from two to three to four colours becomes five. It’s like reading a personal vocabulary of tapestry in the domain of the abstract. It was difficult to stop looking at these 52 weavings and (for me) to imagine how I might weave (musically) a weekly CD to fill those 52 cases. You never know . . .
Of the rest of the exhibition I’m a little ashamed to say nothing quite absorbed me as much as the five pieces described above. I liked the playful florescence of Saori Sakai’s Let’s Pretend with its expanses of open warp in florescent yellow and red nylon.
What came together as woven design between times was odd to say the least. I was back on safer ground (just) with Tide by Fiona Hutchinson. This artist’s preoccupation with the sea and the coastal strip I never tire of, though her colour palette does seem a little restricted. But what is there is a textural richness that is so satisfying to follow and absorb.
I enjoyed seeing Fiona Rutherford’s All About Everything as a catalogue illustration and felt a little let down by the effect of it on the wall in real life. It has some powerful detail: the yellow and black ‘etched’ lines in the central panel are wonderful. But it is perhaps too full of ‘everything’, and everything a tapestry artist can do is pretty much there. Misao Watanabe’s huge Red Scenery looked so much better in the (excellent) catalogue where it was photographed in a (seemingly) free-standing shallow ellipse than hung flat on a wall as in the exhibition.
When it came to working with texture there were parts of A Visitor from the Future by Ieva Krumina where the application of digital print and applique just seemed too intense.
There was more, but making a final choice for this review had to stop with just eight artists. I had a rich four hours of tapestry viewing and am glad I made the effort (and the journey) to the fenland town of Sleaford to experience a show that perfectly suited the gallery and backdrop of NCCD.
Just before leaving my thoughtful and observant partner took me up to the top floor of the Centre to see the extraordinary work of Deirdre Wood, she of the strip-weave forms in jaw-dropping curves and arrangements. Of course I wanted to know how it was done! Curiously enough, I have only recently been exploring African stripweave, having seen a couple of outstanding examples on a colleague’s studio wall (a composer who has even written a fine orchestral work titled Stripweave). I was quite unprepared for the effect of Deidre Wood’s beautifully managed and manipulated creations. There was an economy and directness about her pieces that makes me want to know more about her work generally, and not just about the process. Thankfully, her excellent website provides a starting point.