Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Art v. textiles: The London Open 2015

Dominic Kennedy, Schloss, 2015

Oh dear, and it was all going so well...

Since a previous foray into the Whitechapel Gallery, East London, where I discovered that the (for me) offputtingly titled exhibition  Adventures of the Black Square contained some surprising and rather wonderful textile art, I have been on the lookout for textiles smuggled into galleries in the guise of "fine art". And it has been rather encouraging. At the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition  I found several examples of what the Americans call fiber art, from a masterful embroidery of a budgie in shiny silk threads - next to a portrait of Simon Cowell that was grabbing all the attention - and a delicate, pastel machine embroidery in a round embroidery frame to an architectural 3D structure of perspex and embroidery threads. And of course there were Sonia Delaunay's quilt, clothing and textiles at Tate Modern this summer. (A quilt, in Tate?)

Dominic Kennedy, Schloss, 2015. Detail, showing scraps of felt

So I was delighted when I went to the Whitechapel again, this time for The London Open, the triennial open submission show promising "the latest trends in contemporary art  - paintings and sculpture, film and photography by 48 London artists", to discover some more textiles. True, they were very carefully hidden and you had to be alert to their presence. But there in my favourite piece, a large mixed-media painting/drawing/collage, Schloss, by Dominic Kennedy, above and top, I found some fragments of green felt, the rich, saturated colour almost glowing against the sketchy paint and crayon marks on bare canvas.

Dominic Kennedy, Hunker Down, 2015.
Detail, showing scraps of pink felt

Alongside, in another canvas, Hunker Down, bright pink and intense grey felt added depth, texture and softness.

Sarah Roberts, Ambersands, detail with digitally printed fabrics

My textile-seeking instinct now fully engaged, I found a few small lengths of digitally printed fabric in a large installation by Sarah Roberts, Ambersands, a fantasy building site with pastel colours, glittery bricks, stepladders, lights and the detritus of interior renovation.

Grantchester Pottery installation, with digitally printed fabrics on chair and clothing 

More obviously, fabric was incorporated in another large interior-style installation, pretty but with plenty of punch, by The Grantchester Pottery, looking hand-painted but digitally printed and made up into clothing and chair upholstery

And there was a large wall piece made of woven strips of fabric - not my style, too beige, but hey, it's textile art and I was pleased to see it there..

Jodie Carey, Untitled (Wall Hanging) 2015

Then I made an appalling mistake. I sat down to read the catalogue and realised all was not as it seemed. The traditional prejudices against textile art that I assumed post-modernism had eroded are all still here, alive and well, despite the tokenism.

Dominic Kennedy, it transpires, is "cultivating a child-like aesthetic" with "rudimentary materials including felt". The Grantchester Pottery group is a "decorative arts company" and its collection of pottery, furniture and textiles shows that "the distinction between high and decorative art continues to be challenged". Jodie Carey's wall hanging is made of the only textile that is allowed unchallenged into an art gallery - canvas. She has taken the "traditional craft material of textiles, evoking folk tapestries and communal quilt-making". But don't panic! She has dipped it all in plaster and "applied subtle staining with coloured pencils and graphite". Phew, all that nasty folk stuff has been safely covered up with proper art materials.
Sarah Roberts' Ambersands is described as "architectural" - a nice masculine word. And the images printed on to the textiles are of marble and stone - masculine materials - which perhaps allow her to get away with her tiny bits of fabric, even though her installation is essentially domestic and pretty.

The Grantchester Pottery. 

Here are the traditional, textbook prejudices against textiles: They are childish. Check. They are domestic. Check. They are merely craft. Check. They are unsophisticated ("folk"). Check. They are made by anonymous "communal" groups, not artists. Check. They are simply "decorative" (a very dirty word). Check.

The collaborative Grantchester Pottery group's catalogue entry openly admits that these prejudices are still evident. How very noble and enlightened of the Whitechapel to allow the work through its doors.

Rebecca Ackroyd, Pillow talk, 2014

What was I left with then? A piece by Rebecca Ackroyd, Pillow Talk, polyester resin and silk, which seems to have escaped the label and catalogue censors to be accepted as Fine Art. How was that achieved? The silk was dingy, dreary and distressed, smeared and sullied.

And depressing.


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