Grayson Perry, “Artists’ Textiles”, and the ties that bind

I’m sorry to be overdue with the blog this month, mainly because I’ve been away and filling my time with as many rejuvenating, enriching and escapist activities as possible.  You know what they say about buses: you wait for ages, then three turn up all at once.  The same might be said of my forthcoming posts!

My ten days of R&R kicked off on Friday 14th, hot on the heels of a few mathematical tweaks for a commission.  I headed off to Birmingham to spend the day with the glorious Sarah Hazell, and one of the highlights was seeing Grayson Perry’s latest exhibition, “The Vanity of Small Differences”.  I didn’t see this when it was in London and I rarely need much of an excuse to board a train, so I went for it.

I’ll pause for a minute to explain why I’m a fan of Grayson Perry’s work, since I should also confess that contemporary art and artists don’t usually give me goosebumps.  I already knew of Perry as a ceramicist, but when he turned his attention of embroidery/tapestry I sat up.  I had just begun a course at the London College of Fashion when the Walthamstow Tapestry made its mark on the world. and I was so impressed by it that I got an A2 pullout of it from a newspaper and used it to cover my sketchbook.  The witty, satirical observations of consumerism and mass production were brilliant and my eyes could not stop drinking it up.  It also resonated strongly with my own feelings about why I do the work that I do – and at that point in time, gave me a greater sense of purpose because a famous artist had used a medium I know well and find accessible to communicate, rather than adorn and embellish, and imbued it with gravity and meaning.

“The Vanity of Small Differences” had much the same effect on me, but seeing the tapestries in person brought me out in goosebumps: they were incredible.  The storytelling, conscientiousness, reflection and myriad references filled up my eyes and fired my passion and enthusiasm.  I won’t be too descriptive or retell the story – only recommend the exhibition to anyone curious or interested to see what happens when art and craft truly get together, as they rarely seem to do so nowadays.  (And that recommendation stands alongside the subject matter of the tapestries!)

After Birmingham Art Gallery, my next port of call was the Fashion and Textiles Museum for the “Artists’ Textiles” exhibition.  This was another must-see: fifty-odd years of history were very well curated and the accompanying catalogue was an enriching read.  I took many things away from the visit, but most especially how that history has shaped or contributed to current appraisals of fashion and textile art.  I’ll whizz through a couple of quotes from the catalogue:

Many artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century attempted to make their work relevant to the lives of ordinary people.  Like [William] Morris, they came to see the concept of design as an appropriate way to achieve this, but most of these early attempts by artists to engage with modern twentieth-century life foundered on negative and elitist cultural attitudes….Instead, they relied on expensive traditional handcrafts and exclusive retail outlets to produce and sell their textiles…artist-designed textiles were largely the prerogative of a wealthy minority.  (p.10, my emphasis)

The seeds for mass production were sown even then: a consequent intention to be liberal and inclusive eventually turned into something monstrous, as we know now.  High-scale production made artists’ textiles accessible and highlighted techniques such as block printing and screen printing, but not necessarily lending any value or recognition to individual skill of the original handcrafting techniques of these applied arts.  And why, if it could be so easily produced in such quantity?  Nobody would guess.  Several decades later, Hans Juda, one of the curators for the ‘Painting into Textiles’ exhibition, “felt it essential that artists involved…showed original works of art rather than finished textile designs…. The exhibition proved a great success, and brought about a wider appreciation of textile design as an appropriate medium for artistic expression” (p.88, my emphasis).

Originality is the key here: that always appeals to people, for as the ‘Painting into Textiles’ exhibition showed in the 1950s, it shows a true engagement with what you are doing.  And in terms of ownership and consumption, who wants something that other people have?  Who doesn’t want to be individual?  For that is one way of distinguishing people interested in making things of their own.  The best way to do this is to put your own stamp on things: that automatically ensures that it will be like nobody else’s, because it came from YOU.  And education – learning how to create and customise – is key for anyone working with textiles on a professional or personal level.

In both these exhibitions (The Vanity of Small Differences and Artists’ Textiles) the versatility and depth of printing, weaving and needlework is exemplified, as is its application to domesticity, resourcefulness, creative expression and high culture.  We cannot forget the import of the Bayeux Tapestry (actually embroidered cloth), the Apocalypse Tapestry and other great stories woven throughout history.  As you work with needle, thread, yarn or loom – whichever, for whatever purpose – never forget that you have thousands of years’ worth of technique and history at your fingertips.

Before I took some time off, I felt a bit like a machine, barely catching breath between ideas, commissions, teaching and other creative demands on my time.  I had felt jaded and low on enthusiasm.  My early spring break allowed me to reconnect with the reasons why I do what I do, working away in my little patch.  Textile crafts stand outside the time-space continuum in an eternal moment: simultaneously, you have an open door to the work of peoples past, a connection to people of the future, and in the present, the key to keeping crafts alive as so many have done before you, currently do alongside you, and will do after you.  It may feel as though you are but a tiny drop in the ocean, but the ocean is made up of millions of tiny drops, and tapestries are made of of millions of tiny threads.

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