Prism is a group showcasing high quality fine art textile practice and craftsmanship, which holds an annual exhibition in London (and sometimes elsewhere – they also exhibited at Birmingham earlier this year).
Their current exhibition at Hoxton Arches Gallery in east London is entitled “Another View”. Here are some of my favourite pieces.
Anita Bruce combined natural history books with delicate baskets and stitching to represent her own natural history.
Dee Thomas used beautifully subtle hand dyed fabrics and silk thread to interpret the markings on pebbles found on the beach.
In a brighter vein, Susie Vickery‘s embroidered portraits of Syrian refugees represented them as individuals with hopes and dreams rather than victims.
Also on the subject of conflict, Jo Coombes‘ print with paper lamination and hand embroidery represents the ruined buildings and shattered lives of wastelands like Aleppo due to intransigent world views.
Catherine Gowthorpe‘s nine intricately embroidered squares explore the variability possible in squares within squares ad infinitum.
I didn’t know much about the Scythians – Siberian nomads who roamed from Mongolia to the Ukraine from around 800 to 200BC – before this exhibition.
Not that it’s any excuse, but they pretty much disappeared from history until their artefacts started being rediscovered in the 18th century by expeditions sent to Siberia by Peter the Great.
This exhibition certainly dispels the myth that nomadic people lack art or culture. A stunning selection of gold belt buckles, mostly depicting nature red in tooth and claw (a vulture mauling a yak and tiger, a leopard attacking an elk) were, unsurprisingly, snapped up by Peter the Great for his personal collection (most of the exhibits in this show are on loan from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg). Gold plaques also decorated weapons and even clothing.
A beautiful piece of body armour consists of overlapping metal scales sewn onto a leather vest – only the upper edges are sewn so as not to restrict movement. By contrast, their shields were essentially made of basketry – wooden sticks threaded with leather!
But what is particularly interesting about this exhibition is the number of textiles on display. There are very few 2,300-year-old textiles that have survived, but in the Scythian burial mound site at Pazyryk in the Altai mountains in southern Siberia, snow and rain entered the tomb chambers and froze permanently, preserving the contents.
And guess what – there’s a lot of felt! A large felt hanging that once lined the coffin chamber has an appliqué border of roaring lions’ heads, while a pair of felt stockings is also decorated with appliqué felt strips and wool embroidery.
More prosaically, there are felt rings used to steady the base of round-bottomed drinking vessels, made from twisted strips of felt and sewn with sinew threads.
My favourite felt object was a swan, with a strikingly curved neck and drooping wings; it was probably a decoration for a headpiece or even a horse mask.
Because horses were so important to the Scythians (being the main form of transport as well as providing meat, milk and hide), the animals were buried alongside their masters so that they could carry them to the next world. Decorations on show include a felt mane cover with leather appliqué cockerels, a felt and leather horse mask topped by a ram’s head with a cockerel between its horns, and elaborate bridles covered in gold foil.
Some intricate stitched pieces have also survived, including a decorated shoe with pyrite crystals perforated with holes less than 1mm across, and a stunning embroidery of a rearing winged bull.
On decorated belts, some of the stitches have been wrapped in tin leaf to resemble silver.
Analysis of some of the remains has also shown what was used for dyeing – a woollen skirt fragment was dyed with madder and red dye from the crushed bodies of kermes insects (rather like cochineal), indigo, sorrel and tannin.
But it wasn’t just the clothes and belongings that were preserved by the permafrost. In the Altai Mountains the ground was too hard to dig graves except in the summer, so bodies were preserved by mummification. The organs were removed and replaced with horsehair, pine needles and larch cones, then sewn up with sinews. The exhibition displays the head of a tribal chief, teeth intact, along with some of his heavily tattooed skin. Nice!
I make textiles, not clothes, as my sewing skills are somewhat basic and I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the glamorous world of fashion. But I was drawn to this exhibition because Balenciaga was more than a designer – he was a sculptor, or engineer, of fabric.
As the exhibition explains, “Most designers start with a sketch and then seek out a material. Balenciaga began with the fabrics and designed around them. ‘It is the fabric that decides’, he said.”
So he collaborated with the Swiss company Abraham to create gazar silk, a lightweight but sturdy fabric that could stand away from the body while retaining his sculptural silhouettes. However, he didn’t rely on fabric alone: as the X-ray behind show, this apparently loose, unstructured tulip dress was supported by a stiff corset and bar tacks under the arms to ensure a secure fit!
This historically inspired silk taffeta evening dress was supported by hoops, and the fabric was “bagged out” so that it filled with air to create more volume as the wearer walked. Less glamorously, the hem was secured with ties just above the knee (seen at the end of the video).
Intriguingly, many of his sculptural shapes were created from a single piece of fabric, like this evening dress.
Not all his sculptural designs were practical – only two of his famous envelope dresses were sold, and one was returned because the buyer couldn’t go to the toilet when wearing it!
Neither were all of Balenciaga’s designs minimalist. He worked closely with companies such as Lesage, who made luxury embellishments and accessories, including the stunning embroidery on this evening coat, made up of white pearls, teardrop and pink feather-shaped sequins, and Swarovski crystals.
Upstairs, the second part of the exhibition features the work of designers who have been influenced by the master, from Huert de Givenchy to Oscar de la Renta.
You sense that Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili has a bit of the devil in him. When the Clothworkers’ Company approached him about commissioning a tapestry for their dining room, he sent back a list of conditions – a non-wish list, if you will. He didn’t want to meet them, he didn’t want to see where the tapestry would be hung, and he didn’t want a discussion about the content.
When the livery company agreed to all his demands, Ofili came up with a new ruse. In a fascinating BBC TV documentary following the creation of the tapestry, he twinkles:
“I thought it would be funny to see if the weavers could actually weave water. So I found myself making the watercolour and trying to release the pigment even more and giggling at the fact that it was almost impossible for them to achieve it – there’s no way they’re going to be able to do this! So let’s just sit back and watch!”
And watch we do, open mouthed as, over nearly three years, an amazing team of weavers at the Dovecot Tapestry Studio in Edinburgh translate Ofili’s watery triptych of free-flowing colour and grazing charcoal into a shimmering fabrication of wool.
One of the weavers, Emma Jo Webster, explains: “The watercolour’s multilayered, so you’re often looking at the colours underneath to come up through the row as well. So rather than just a block of colour the mixing is very important….If you want to weave something that looks all the same colour but you don’t want it to look flat, like cardboard, you would make a mix of very close colours and then it will just gently look like the same colour.”
Viewing the tapestry close up at the National Gallery, you can see what they mean. Like an Impressionist painting, the flecks of individual colours dance before your eyes, before coalescing into luminous pools of colour bleeding into each other as you move further away.
The central scene could be seen as a modern-day Genesis, with Adam strumming a guitar while languid Eve’s cocktail glass is refilled by a somewhat abstract barman (based on footballer Mario Balotelli!) lurking in a palm tree. Storm clouds loom in the distance, presaging an imminent end to this paradise.
The setting is wonderfully theatrical, and not just because of the male and female figures on either side, holding back the curtains to allow us a glimpse of this intimate tableau.
Around the walls floats a chorus of grisaille dancers, their sinuous voluptuousness and billowing veils straight out of an Indian temple. But many have moustaches and goatee beards – another sign that not is all as it seems?
All the exhibitors had artist statements (most of which were not too burdened with gobbledegook “artspeak”!) explaining their intentions and way of working. Some also had copies of research behind their ideas and approach.
Although it doesn’t have a textiles degree, we usually visit the show because ESP is interested in the stone carving. Among the examples of foliage, drapery, and lettering (some of which was quite innovative this year), I particularly liked Liz Middleton‘s limestone pillows.
And although there isn’t a textiles specialism, there were some textiles on display.
Hannah Hill‘s funny, energetic, feminist embroideries make the point that embroidery has never traditionally been considered an art form – it’s just “women’s work”.
In the same room, Kirsty Armstrong showed large sheets of oxidised (rusty) steel, which she had used to make a latex “print”.
Natalia Gonzalez Martin’s meaty amorphous sculptures were made from chicken wire, plaster and wax, partly covered with gauze. Displayed on plinths, they raised the question of who in society has the power to decide what cultural objects should be displayed in museums and galleries.
I wasn’t sure how her work would fit in a domestic setting, but I did buy one of her monoprints!