Saturday, 28 July 2012


Dovecot Studios is celebrating a century of tapestry production with their current exhibition Weaving the Century: Tapestry from Dovecot Studios 1912-2012. Although the location on Infirmary Street has been open for four years as an exhibition space, it has kept a relatively low profile. With this vibrant show the gallery is sure to put itself firmly on the map, whilst raising the profile of contemporary tapestry and the art of tapestry weaving.

Jonathan Cleaver, a weaver at the Studios, was kind enough to show me around the working space which viewers are able to see as part of the exhibition. He offered a little background to the process of weaving and to some of the commissions that are currently underway.

The exhibition runs along the balcony; visitors can see the weavers at work in the central space

One such work-in-progress is a tapestry of a work by painter Victoria Crow. It is the second opportunity the Studio has had to collaborate with the artist; their first can be seen on display in the exhibition in its finished form. Both designs are from Crow’s series A Shepherd’s Life which takes scenes of the life of farmer Jenny Armstrong. The series is remarkable in itself (more information on the project can be found here); its woven counterparts well demonstrate the capacity of tapestry to lend further dimension to an artwork.

This particular tapestry is entirely composed of undyed British wool. It has proved relatively difficult to source, Jonathan admits, as it is a case of finding sheep of the right colour. Most of the wool comes from the Shetlands, although some has been taken from the royal sheep at Highgrove Estate, Prince Charles’ country home, and some from fleeces hand-spun in the Borders. The sheep farmer who took over Jenny’s farm after her death has even donated some black wool from her current flock. There is something wonderfully poetic about the different wools from sheep across the UK coming together to be woven into this effigy to a sheep farmer. The materials themselves have stories of their own.

Jonathan and some of the dark wool sourced from Jenny's old sheep farm

The Crow tapestry is being carried out by master weavers David Cochrane and Naomi Robertson. When collaborating on a tapestry, as Jonathan explains, it is very important to have a good understanding of how the image is to be interpreted, in order to work coherently together. The transition of a design to tapestry is far from mechanical and depends greatly on the individual’s decisions throughout the process. The design is traced and enlarged into a full-scale linear ‘cartoon’, which is pressed up against the warps, or vertical threads, for a basic imprinted outline. As Dovecot Studios very rarely give direction to their weavers regarding colour, this simple line drawing is the only guide available to the weavers and all of the colour mixing is done by eye, producing works that are ‘more responsive, richer and more sensitive’. If a fault is identified, or a change is to be made, the entire line has to picked out and restarted from that point. ‘Weavers learn quickly not to make mistakes through the process!’ Jonathan laughs.

The tapestries can take months to complete, and can become a big part of the weaver’s life during that time. The studio has developed something of a ceremony for the moment of cutting the finished piece from the loom: ‘we even use gold-coloured scissors…you want to mark it in some way’.

Between them, Dovecot Studios’ master weavers David and Naomi have accumulated around forty years of experience. Does Jonathan see himself continuing for a similar length of time? He smiles: ‘every project is new, each poses a new challenge’. Weaving the Century is testament to the extraordinary variety of works produced and viewers are given a chance to see what tapestry is capable of. A stunning exhibition that cannot be missed, it should be part of any trip to the Edinburgh Art Festival this summer.

Weaving the Century: Tapestry from Dovecot Studios 1912-2012 runs until 7th October 2012.

Whitworth Tapestry [1967-8] Eduardo Paolozzi

After Benches 1973 [1973] Tom Phillips

BCK 75 (Proem) [1998] Ian Hamilton Finlay

Friday, 27 July 2012


Part Two of the Kent art trail: The Folkestone Mermaid, Cornelia Parker’s contribution to the 2011 Folkestone Triennial, and a lasting monument on the Folkestone seafront. The pose emulates that of the Copenhagen Mermaid, which was unveiled almost exactly a century earlier in 1913. 

Parker’s work is diverse and often quietly violent in its content; she is probably best known for her installation Cold Dark Matter [1991] for which she blew up a garden shed and suspended the remnants in a cluster of broken, jagged shards and fragments that cast menacing shadows onto the walls. The Mermaid is a surprisingly harmless addition to her oeuvre. Folkestone residents are generally somewhat scathing of the bronze, deriding it as unappealing and unoriginal, but there is something lovely in how unassuming she is, and how uninterested in her viewers, a small figure with her back to us staring out to the horizon.

Here is a short interview with model Georgina Baker, in which she describes her application and selection to become immortalised in bronze, and the surprisingly painful process of taking the mould of her body. 

Cornelia Parker is represented by Frith Street Gallery.

Monday, 23 July 2012


Margate gives new meaning to run down. Certainly it has some little pockets of interest and humour - a friendly sweet shop, amusing graffiti, a better slush puppy than I've had in years - but the rest is crumbling arcades, scaffolding on the sand, and kebab houses close to extinction. Yet Turner Contemporary's current exhibition Tracy Emin: She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea 
has aided Margate's transformation into an art student's pilgrimage destination. 

Emin's recent work, at least as it is represented by the curators at Turner Contemporary, displays little deviation from well established Emin-branded themes of sex, desire, raw emotion. There is an almost obsessive repetition of certain corporeal positions and specific forms - a reclining female for example returns again and again in various formats. The shape is a curious one to fixate on: it is tempting to imbue the languid female with idea of longing, apathy, desperation, but the laying out of the body is also something of a standard pose in a life drawing class - Emin plays with angles and media to reinvigorate the form. Of greatest interest is the transformation of her famous swiftly executed, stark monoprints into streaks of embroidery. Luxuriously thick black thread is carefully looped onto canvas in undulating, swelling and thinning lines that mimic the naturally uneven thickness of lines drawn in ink. This transition is interesting because it retains the aesthetic of the monoprint and is therefore surprising: on approaching the wall based pieces, the viewer discovers something unexpected about its manufacture.  

Where the exhibition falters somewhat is its clunky comparison of Emin's pieces with erotic content discovered in works by Turner and Rodin. There seems little reason to make such a link but for Turner's and Emin's shared personal connection to Margate and the fact that the gallery has temporarily acquired Rodin's Kiss for the entrance hall. It is conceded in the exhibition catalogue that the artists come at the eroticised female nude from opposite standpoints, but the drawing together of these works adds so little to either that it is easy to be suspicious of its motivations as convenience, crowd pleasing tactics or ticking boxes. 

Nevertheless, it is certainly something to see these big names in such a place as Margate. The bleached floors and large bright windows of the gallery make for a starkly different environment to that which stagnates outside, desperately awaiting its promised renovation. 

Monday, 16 July 2012


Tony Swain: Drowned Dust, Sudden Word is initially intriguing through its being so underwhelming. The gallery has in recent years tended to focus on sculptural work, as both supports for wall-based pieces and as the main event of an exhibition. This time the space was bare but for a number of relatively small-scale pieces tacked rather unceremoniously to the walls. 

The works’ modest presentation is in tune with their unsophisticated scrapbook aesthetic. Cuttings of newspaper are torn out and shapes carefully doctored – removed, overlaid, and painted over, to create works that are in part abstract but retain some memory of their original representational content. The transformation of the image through this sort of manual photoshopping is far from seamless and the artistic process, that is, Swain’s choices to retain or remove elements of an original image, is very much present. It is a display of personal aesthetic preference; in fact, the works appear to have only these aesthetics as their main event or purpose. In the accompanying video interview to the exhibition, Swain confirms that he wants 'to make images beautiful' - for me, in this, he fails. The colours are drab, but not endearingly so; the compositions clumsily evokes landscapes and cityscapes with the subtlety of a GCSE collage project. 

The interview serves only to reinforce the decided mediocrity of Swain’s work, and its lacking of a critical dimension. The artist’s account is peppered with middle-of-the-road comments. He describes his absurd or unexpected titles as 'a way in' to the work which are ‘not intended to be prescriptive’. He apparently 'relishes changing how the image is viewed' and describes his obscuration of certain elements of an image as having the effect of instigating a compulsion to read the text, and to discover what is under the paint. These are hardly ground-breaking observations.

The gallery’s spotlighting of Tony Swain encourages closer inspection of his work but in most cases I found his works quite disappointing. There is evidence of the artist engaging with his materials and content on only a physical level – any critical engagement with the history of his media or the content of his material is certainly lacking.

Thursday, 5 July 2012


Realising I knew relatively little about Hockney’s recent work, or really anything beyond his Californian splash paintings, I went to David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, an exhibition at the Royal Academy earlier this year. A long, snaking queue of patient and impatient Londoners and tourists, which ran out of the entrance doors and halfway into the gallery’s stately courtyard, gave a good idea of the considerable media attention attracted by the show.

The exhibition opens with four paintings from the late 1990s, each treating the same country scene at four different seasonal points in the year. Three large trees dominate the relatively simply composition, with a small road in the bottom left corner and a grassy slope to the right. Standing before the summer version of this view me and my dad agreed that although there were certain pleasing and evocative details to the painting - the shading under one of the trees creating an inviting glen, the road adding a subtle sense of narrative  - the different elements in the composition were treated in such a way that they did not complement one another or combine to make a complex and evocative landscape so much as sit starkly beside one another without visual coherence or communication.

Three Trees Near Thisendale: Summer 2007
Three Trees Near Thixendale: Winter, 2007

Unfortunately, I found this to be the case with several of Hockney's landscapes shown at the RA exhibition. Many among them appeared to be studiously 'different' or unconvincing in their use of colour, like artistic experiments which might perhaps had been better left in the studio. Some among them were notably more effective than others however: Hockney’s Woldgate Woods series for example included some particularly effective pieces with some excellently and beautifully rendered light effects. 

Woldgate Woods 7th and 8th November, 2006

However, what was of special note in this exhibition was its marking of a recent and striking change to the artistic process of the contemporary painter: rather than sketching in books and on paper, Hockney uses an iPad to record his impressions of the landscape. What does this mean for artistic practice in the future, more particularly, for the future of painting? Following the development of photography and cinema, the mimetic function of painting at least was superseded, if its quality and value as a means of expression was not, perhaps, rendered obsolete. But what does it mean when the painter’s customary processes are implemented through screen-based media and comparable painterly effects are achieved?  A few days previously to seeing the show I had visited my aunt, who herself has recently acquired an iPad. Certainly drawing on it is not easy, and requires skill. But then again, erroneous marks can be instantly erased; compositions saved, effortlessly transported and returned to; different hues tried out and rejected without trace of their ever being there. Whereas the RA put little emphasis on the use of this medium (the final iPad sketches were blown up and displayed on the gallery walls so that they were only distinguishable from paintings through a closer examination of the thickness of the supports), clearly, an entirely different process is involved. 

Sketchbooks (real, tangible sketchbooks of card and paper) were displayed on screen with a rather tacky page-turning graphic which took the viewer through the pages. Although the alternative can be irritating – to see only one selected page of a sketchbook that is tantalisingly inaccessible in its glass case – I wondered what exactly I was looking at up on the screen. Certainly more information was given, but is that all we need from an exhibition? If we are provided only with screened content, why come to the show in the first place? The reproduction of his sketches as seen on the screen in the exhibition might only be minutely different to their reproduction on our laptop or computer screens at home. The ‘art object’ of the sketchpad, through its digitalisation, is transformed into a sort of tablet through which drawings pass but do not reside: a new way in which technology might question our conceptions of the medium of painting. As such, the exhibition had the potential to open wider debate and critical reflection on the convergence of painting and new technologies, which I felt the curators of the show could have exploited further, rather than focussing as they did on the artist’s attachment to landscape.


After a long, long absence filled with a desperate and ill-advised (but eventually relatively successful) attempt to align James Turrell's light installations with nineteenth-century aesthetic theory and Romantic poetry (...) and a lifestyle fuelled by energy drinks and meals from the library vending machine, I have finally returned in tact to S P E C T A C U L A R U M. Many, many things to write about, some embarrassingly out-of-date but still, I hope, interesting.

I'm going to be up in Edinburgh for most of the summer working at Summerhall, and catching as many exhibitions and installations as possible in between shifts - watch this space for posts on works old and new!

No Stress I'm Back [2011]
Collage and Mixed Media on Canvas 
31.5" x 31.5"