Ruthin Craft Centre: Gallery 1
The view of Ruthin’s principal gallery, with its three asymmetrical ceiling openings, is all white. White and soft pastels predominate too in the fifteen exhibits, composed of fabric and textile of varied style and form, that are within sight. The expectation from the edge is of an exhibition that will charm and soothe, the White Company come to roost in Wales’ premier gallery for the applied arts. The view from the entry is false. ‘Construct’ is an exhibition of wit and subversion.
Caren Garfen has created a table immaculately laid and ready for the dining. The difference is that her thread work incorporates a slice of cake and a bar of chocolate with the stamp ‘no’ upon them. Her title is Part 1 Starter- Don’t Make a Meal of It, her subject the unsettling relationship with food in a post-abundance western world. The average dieter, the slimly elegant catalogue declares, may be expected to spend in excess of twenty-five thousand pounds on products that make promise to help.
Garfen creates work that has a domestic familiarity but which on closer view undermines that expectation. A duvet cover is revealed to be a patchwork depicting mundane items of the daily household chores. An ostensible kitchen roll unfurls to reveal images that run the gamut from double stack burger through to diet pills via ice cream, cake and chocolate. Her title is Part 3 Dessert- She had her cake and she ate it- D-I-E-T-S F-A-I-L. Body form, commonly the cause of private struggle and inner turmoil, is a theme of importance and one not often addressed by artists.
The most deceptive of all is Team Spirit, a delicately made parasol that might have fluttered in from a Gainsborough portrait. It is threaded with dozens of small images, the bottles of vodka, cocktail glasses and liqueur labels denoting the rise of the female drinker. The programme notes the jump in the number of recipients of on-the-spot fines meted out to the drunk and disorderly who are now female.
By contrast the rituals of life in the home are the subject for Naomi Ryder. Her fabric is twelve feet in height, hung vertically and of a gossamer thinness and transparency. Across it at regular intervals she has made image after image of a woman preparing for readiness for the outside world. The technique is freehand machine embroidery on silk chiffon. The catalogue informs that the artist knows well the background for Sarah puts her lipstick on. She knows ‘mink eye shadow’ and ‘twilight teaser’. At sixteen, she was an assistant at Miss Selfridge where ‘getting to cover the make-up counter was the highlight of my Saturday job.’
The artists in ‘Construct’ are all, bar one, women. Needlework, fabric and video are featured from Linda Barlow, Janet Haigh, Deirdre Nelson and Lynn Setterington. Val Jackson’s 2103 creation Curtains to Independence is a tribute-memory to her mother and addresses the ambiguously defined spread of the role of women across the domestic and public spheres. Irrespective of earnings, most women still undertake most of the grind of domestic tasks. Jackson has recreated a uniform from the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force from the Second World War but it has been made from a floral-patterned curtain fabric.
The sole male artist, Nigel Hurlstone, has his work displayed in a separate screened enclosure. What pleasure comprises eleven canvases with images of men close to life-size. The subjects are taken from the many thousands of photographs made by Montague Glover, an architect and holder of a Military Cross for bravery in the First World War. It was Glover’s practice to take young men to his flat, to adorn them with props or uniforms and make images of imagined soldiery. Clothes in general, and uniform in particular, confer certainty and identity. The often broad smiles assumed by the subjects, the shadows around the figures and the knowledge that these are fabrications of identity, disturbingly undermine this certainty of observation and interpretation.
Art of quality always retains an element of mystery as to its making. The applied arts marry industrial technique with personal expression. ‘Of course I use technology’ declared the spirited presenter of the 2013 Reith Lectures. Hurlstone’s haunting work is digitally printed and machine embroidered.
‘Construct’ is an enthralling and enticing exhibition. It plays satisfyingly on the gap between the expectation that a particular medium is likely to evoke, and the fact of its content. Its genesis has been due to a lecture at Ruthin given by Melanie Miller in November 2013. The subtitle is ‘eight textile artists explore identity’. The catalogue, with an introduction by June Hill and Philip Hughes, captures the subtlety of colour in the exhibits. Appropriately, its thirty-two pages are bound by thread with a delicately loose strand at each end.
‘Construct’ continues until 20th July.