Matthew Harris at the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath

Matthew Harris Lantern Cloth, from website

Matthew Harris Lantern Cloth, from website

 

There is currently an exhibition of Matthew Harris’ work along with that of his partner, Cleo Mussi, who is a mosaicist, at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath.  It’s on until 3 April.  The exhibition is called ’50/50 Working in Parallel’ and is hung so that Harris’ work is down one wall and Mussi’s down the other, so you could go to the exhibition and easily see the work of one and not the other.

I quite like Mussi’s work, but I really love Harris’.  Mussi makes beautify mosaic, sometimes on a very grand scale:

Cleo Mussi mosaic in public building in Stroud

Cleo Mussi mosaic in public building in Stroud

This is a less than satisfactory photo I took of one of her pieces which is a public building in Stroud, but it serves to show how big they are.  What I like about her work is the way she uses very simple outline shapes but fills them with intricate designs:

Cleo Mussi, detail

Cleo Mussi, detail

I also liked the way that some of the small pieces in the Bath show played with the idea of making the sweet sinister and the sinister sweet.  So pretty dolls’ faces were attached to odd bodies and strange hybrid creatures emerged in bright, hard, shiny colours.  She also showed some exquisite sketchbooks in the central display cabinets.

 

Sketchbook case at the 50/50 Exhibition, Victoria Gallery, Bath

Sketchbook case at the 50/50 Exhibition, Victoria Gallery, Bath

 

But I really loved Harris’ work because it showed me something new.  Both artists were working from inspiration from their trip to Japan, and Harris’ textiles showed the clear influence of traditional Japanese forms and the wabi sabi concept of age revealing the true beauty of materials as they change over time (at least that’s what I got from the show).  Mussi’s work shows a much more contemporary Japanese influence, a bit reminiscent of the Harajuku Girls.  Harris’ work is a lot quieter, and I loved the way that so much of it wasn’t padded with wadding but with folding, so layers and layers of cloth folded and then very beautifully seamed together in a way I couldn’t quite work out.  Although it looks really distressed and ancient, it is immaculately put together.  The angles are precise and the stitching is strikingly even which gives it a strangely reassuring quality.  Here’s a detail of work which is not in the show but which gives an indication of his style:

Matthew Harris, detail, from website

Matthew Harris, detail, from website

 

I loved the way he painted the cloth and cut it up and reassembled it.  Just so full of energy given the muted form.  I loved the stripes and want to start to experiment with a similar aesthetic a bit myself, just to see.  In fact, I loved it so much I went mad and bought a piece, a very small piece that I fell in love with, so I will be able to supply some much better photos when I can get my hands on it at the end of the show – before it goes to the framers.

But Harris is particularly interesting as a male textile artist, and has things to say about his craft.  In the January/February 2011 number of Crafts, he talks about the art/craft divide:

I must admit, I flinch slightly at the term textile artist.  If you’re a painter no one says you are a paint artist.  There’s a thing in craft, a kind of justification.  I consider myself to think and work as an artist, but the materials I choose are textiles rather than paper… I think wall based textiles is quite a difficult area in terms of showing , and non-functional textiles is difficult in terms of selling.  It has a very big audience of enthusiasts.  They are much more interested in how you do something, they want to go away and make what you make.

Lloyd-Jones, Teleri, (2011) ‘Double Vision’, Crafts, Jan-Feb, 42-45: 45

I was interested, but not particularly surprised to see him engaging with the art/craft debate, and this is a theme I am bound to return to, especially if I ever get down to writing my book, but it was also insightful about how people ‘consume’ his shows.  I certainly went with my sketchbook, and spent a fair amount of time figuring out how he did it.  As I say, I am looking forward to being able to handle a piece to see what he does.  And, happily, a lot of the work had sold, not the big, beautiful, expensive pieces, but a lot of the smaller almost sketches for other work.

So the upshot is that this is a great exhibition for showing something new in textiles, quite a radical re-working of a sort of quilt, with a very strong intellectual project.  Well worth a trip.

Jill Carter's Dreams, Masks and Mirrors at the RWA, Bristol

Costume dolls at Dreams, Masks and Mirrors, with the permission of the artist

Costume dolls at Dreams, Masks and Mirrors, with the permission of the artist

 

This is a slightly different post because it isn’t about quilting until the end.  But it is about creativity and collaboration and making art.

On Tuesday afternoon I went to the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) with a group of writers from the University of Bristol to a writing workshop with Jill Carter.  Jill describes herself as a social engagement artist because her work responds to what she describes as real situations such as communities characterised by lack of aspiration, low life chances, poor housing and so on.  She also works with people with dementia.  She takes her collections out into the community and invites people to have conversations with her and to interact with the objects she takes with her.  Her website is http://homepage.mac.com/jill_carter/.

We share a fascination with dolls, and she is particularly taken with old costume dolls.  I once bought a whole suitcase full of costume dolls which had clearly been someone’s beloved collection.  I couldn’t bear to think of them going into landfill and so I think I paid £20 max for the lot, including the suitcase.  They have been lurking in a drawer in my office ever since.  When Jill came in to talk to us about ARCIO,our research centre  in my department, I showed her the dolls and she remembered them and asked me if she could borrow them for her show.  So they ended up in the case in the photo at the top of the post.  As a trade Jill ran a writing workshop for us.

We met in the gallery and wrote in response to Jill’s evocative and enigmatic black and white photos and the objects in her collections.  I found it quite hard to get going as I had gone straight from work, and so I ended up with a list of first lines for stories which I didn’t have the energy to write.  Here is what I wrote with the photo I was writing about.

 

Jill Carter, photo in Dreams, Masks and Mirrors, with the permission of the artist

Jill Carter, photo in Dreams, Masks and Mirrors, with the permission of the artist

 

What would happen if a rabbit brought my my mail?


  • In string theory, many worlds theory, it is more than possible that there is a world in which a rabbit brings my mail.
  • Opening the door one morning, I am surprised to find a six-foot white rabbit, possibly called Harvey, working for the Royal Mail, and holding my latest parcel from Amazon.
  • I wonder what combination of circumstances led the Head of Human Resources to employ a giant rabbit as a postman.  Surely a category error.  Surely diversity gone mad.
  • One morning, Roger awoke to find himself with a rabbit’s head and a postman’s uniform.  ‘Drat,’ he thought, ‘I’ve never suited a polo shirt.’
  • Royal Mail, email, snail mail, rabbit mail.  The Acme Kitchenware Company had tried it all.
  • There is terror in the rabbit’s eyes.  The parcel he is holding smells of burnt almonds.
  • These were dark days at the sorting office.  Recently they had been employing anyone.  Now they were even taking on rabbits.

Jill also gave us cards to write on instead of paper, and I found a rabbit on her tray of objects.  I produced this:

Rabbit writing

Rabbit writing

 

The idea of using stiff cards to write on was really interesting as it encouraged us to think about producing a different kind of text: text as artefact, text as display, performative text in another guise.  I have been thinking a lot about Eve Sedgwick and her classes with her students making artists’ books as a way of disrupting or questioning texts, what she would probably describe as ‘queering’ the text, making us question its status and norms, what we expect from ‘text’.  It’s an area I would love to do more work on – if only I had some post-grad students who were interested in doing it.  Perhaps I could persuade the writing group I went with to take it further.

 

Thimble writing at the RWA

 

As ever with my writing group, the quality of writing was phenomenal, and ranged from the quietly terrifying just this side of ghost stories, to poetry, to jazzy word play, to sign language jokes, to elegy, to humour.  It was a delight to listen.

After the first round, we read our writing to each other and then did a round of very quick writing with the prompt, ‘Reveal/conceal’.  I found myself writing about textiles and research:

The blast of a hot air gun melts the fabric, plasticises the organza they use to make the drapes that float at the windows of a thousand well-appointed starter home show houses.  The fluid and shiny becomes hard and dense, curls back on itself, crisp and fluted along its edges.

Underneath, another layer.  Potentially denser, less transitory.  More permanent.  It would be nice if we could peel back and find something good and true and solid  and not another layer of holes and fissures and sutures and ruptures.  It would be lovely to find the smooth and intact not more fragments and layers.  It would be nice.

This is to do with De Certeau’s ideas of knowledge and what we can realistically discover through research.  I expect I will blog about this at some point as I think that contemporary textile practice is a very good representation of the process De Certeau describes.  For now, thanks to Jill and Jo and Jacky and Margaret and Louise and Malcolm who wrote with me.

 

Thimble writing

Thimble writing

Katharine Guerrier at Bristol Quilters

Katharine Guerrier, Pinboard Quilts with the permission of the artist

Katharine Guerrier, Pinboard Quilts with the permission of the artist

 

This month’s speaker at Bristol Quilters was Katharine Guerrier, who is a really well-known British quilter who has been extraordinarily influential on many quilters through her books and workshops.  Her website is http://www.katharineguerrier.com/.  She came and gave us her talk on small, medium and large quilts and brought a great number of pieces with her.  I love the fact that she works almost exclusively with patterned fabric, and, when asked if she ever used hand-dyed cloth said that she would rather spend the time sewing rather than dyeing.  I know how she feels.  I am happy to pay other people to dye fabric rather than do it myself.  I don’t want the mess and the faff, although I really love the effect.  It is also great to see someone who clearly delights in pattern and piles it into her quilts.

Katharine Guerrier Quilts, with the permission of the artist

Katharine Guerrier Quilts, with the permission of the artist

 

She is also the doyenne of the scrap quilt, which is another form dear to the hearts of people who love fabric.  I loved her little quilts which she calls pinboard quilts.  These are made so that people can pin them up to admire lovely fabric on their pinboards, and also so that quilters can try  out ideas.  The little quilts are quick to make so trying something out isn’t a great investment either in time or money.

 

Katharine Guerrier, Pinboard Quilt, with the permission of the artist

Katharine Guerrier, Pinboard Quilt, with the permission of the artist

 

I was also struck by the back of her quilts which often contain leftover blocks from other projects stitched with large blocks of fabric.  She said that she thought the backs were sometimes really successful as quilts because she was thinking less about them and so they were freer and more spontaneous.  They did look a bit like the celebrated Gee’s Bend quilts and had a real liveliness

Katharine Guerrier is clearly a well-loved figure in quilting in the UK.  There was a stifled cheer when she got up to speak and a stampede to have a closer look at her work.  I really like contemporary work and art quilts, but it was a delight to spend an evening with Katharine Guerrier and her wonderful jewel-coloured, saturated palette and her beautifully made work.