Thursday 26 June 2014

'Fabric' Review: No sun without shadow

Malina Busch 'Fluorescent Blush'
This review was going to be a celebration of summer colours; of shutting ones eyes against the June solstice, leaving echoes of bright pink, rich blues, willow green flashing across the vision, leaving red spots in their wake. I wanted to waken a joyous holiday spirit found in new summer clothing; softly draped fabrics dyed in fluttering colours. Instead I've found myself unwillingly drawn to secluded gazebos hiding clandestine encounters, and surreptitiously lifting tablecloths to see who is touching who inappropriately.

Which sounds like every summer party I've ever been to, so what better exhibition to open in June than Fabric? This show was inspired by the current trend for artists, both established and emerging, working with all kinds of cloth. From embroidery, tapestry, found material, string, canvas…as well as combining it with other media. After the experience they had at the Exeter Contemporary Open, the curators followed up some old and new leads which led to this exhibition. 

Although ‘folk’ or ethnographic art has been revisited in recent years, with the Tate’s massive folk show, or the Perry Grayson curated show at the British Museum, they were determined not to go down that route. Where folk art is created by people with little or no training, they wanted to keep the show determinedly ‘painterly’ and fine art specific. Although the exhibits are mixed media, from photographs, to clay, wood and metal, ribbon and velvet the curators intend to ‘lead you through a highly subjective snapshot of fabric in contemporary art practice’.

Aside from the lush colour selection, the pieces of art work together because of the variety in textures. Not just those created by the materiality of the fabric, but the shadows formed by 3D effects. The sculptural possibilities of the different types of cloth are exploited, and immediately visible. Malina Busch combines colour and structure, whilst Dexter Dymoke takes advantage of soft earthy coloured chiffon and glowing red rubber to set the scene. His metal, wood and soft pink ribbon ‘Bou’ simply confirms the sexuality of this show. After all, what is cloth for, but to sit next to naked flesh?

And pink sun-kissed flesh is there on the plinth. Lauren Kelly presents a piece so raw and sexual, it threatens to consume you. Pendulous, plaited, it begs you to push the foam lengths aside to reveal what is hidden. She deliberately sets out to explore genders and works to bring together soft filling and hard frames, hand- and machine-made, ribbed and smooth. The sheer scale of this piece – and she says they get bigger – echo her experience on building sites; the many small pieces and processes make up more than the sum of their parts. Super human ‘living’ structures, which for me go beyond what is simply male and female.

If the sun shines on frolicking flesh, what is it doing on Sara Impey’s work but illuminating the darker corners of political life? Her machine quilted pieces are the highlights of this exhibition, not simply because they are works of art but the traditional ‘soft’ ‘feminine’ art of quilting turns our world upside down. Stitches pour scorn on modern obsessions with ID in ‘Unknown’. Her improbably held vertical fabric chain of bondage, 'Chain Stitch' has great sympathy with Kelly's work. She also brings together opposites to create a whole. Oddly, words from industrial processes such as forge, smelt, weld, fuse, cast, solder are combined on the links with words from more 'handmade' processes such as pin, knit, thread, knot, suture, weave, sew and quilt.

There is no sun without shadow and this bright exhibition, although sunny on the surface, has some very dark, subversive ideas. Sex, bondage, flesh, chains...making up and creating the fabric of our humanity.

Malina Busch, Dexter Dymoke, Henry Hussey, Bruce Ingram, Sara Impey, Lauren Kelly, Nigel Massey, Liz Rideal are at Fabric - 25 June - 1 October 2014

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