Its taken me an age to get on with writing about other people’s work – too preoccupied with my own ! Anyway this post is about Mary Conway ([email protected]; www.maryconway.co.uk). Mary’s work uses historic processes and materials to highlight contemporary concerns about the environment. From a very conceptual beginning, this project has been a process of giving visual form to these ideas and concerns. She has achieved this through a dual exploration of techniques and materials.
In terms of techniques, she has been working with indigo, a substance which has been and still is used across many cultures. Indigo is a naturally occurring dye, and is a non-polluting sustainable resource. Its most highly developed use now is in areas which are particularly vulnerable to climate change, most usually because of their poverty. Hence its use in her work is significant for all these reasons; each beautifully tied indigo-dyed container begs us to consider its origins. And it is not only the technique but the form of the containers that is important. The shape derives from a Japanese model, originally used by the poor as a way of turning a piece of cloth into a storage bag. It is a form which suggests transience, displacement – the need to take nothing but the most essential items in the quickest way possible.
In terms of materials, she has been using salt, that most basic of substances. A historically precious commodity, it is one that we now take for granted, but it is vital to survival. However, it also suggests the reverse – the evaporation of water and drought. This expresses one of the key themes of Mary’s work – balance – for which the salt becomes a metaphor. On one hand it is life-giving – our bodies require it – on the other it is poison, it threatens life. In looking at the effects of climate change there is imbalance here too, it is the poorest areas of the world that are most affected, precisely those which are most dependent on these basic substances and processes. In dealing with issues around the environment it is difficult to be subtle; it is also extraordinarily hard to make art that has a message but which retains an aesthetic integrity. I think Mary has achieved all of this. These pieces are self-referential, they point to their own process and to their content. They recall in their deep blue the colours of the oceans, but carry in their insides the residue of the seas’ destruction. I think they are a very successful synthesis of the conceptual and the visual, they quietly communicate a subtle message while inviting reflection and consideration.
The time is rapidly slipping away…we cleared the studios last week. This is a rather sad picture of all my possessions in a large blue bag. Goodbye to my desk forever ! I've been focussing on getting my portfolio sorted out for the last four days. I really wasn't prepared for how long just mounting stuff takes ! Of course there's lots of bits to finish off, samples to neaten up and also pages to compose really but it is taking such an age. As I'm doing it all on the kitchen table I've used every surface including the hob so am having to subsist on tea and biscuits and oven-ready meals. I can't now see any surfaces at all and the poor dog is constantly covered in bits of masking tape. I had to take my plinths back in last week for the tutor to approve – and I've left them in the studio with my name written in huge letters across the top. If they've gone walkabout I shall be pretty incandescent. This week is painting the studios so I have to go in tomorrow afternoon for a few hours. One week to go till the deadline !
I've been working on my journal for hours – trying to make sure its in a good shape for handing in tomorrow. So I feel a bit dazed ! I also had to write my artists statement which will appear with a horribly cheesy picture of me pretending to be working in the machine room. Oh lord. Anyway this is my statement – as amended by my tutor (although I didn't take on board one change – I've stuck with 'asking' the viewer rather than 'challenging' the viewer. I think the viewer must get ever so tired of being challenged).
"These books are a range of responses to a film with which I have been obsessed for years – Powell & Pressburger’s ‘I Know Where I’m Going’. Each piece reflects an aspect of five of the key characters and incorporates their words. In some cases I have been influenced in making the book by something that actually happens to the person within the film; in others it is a response to how the film treats the character, for example, to the editing process or visually to the film making process itself. I am particularly interested in the book structure – in the interdependence of form and content, and in exploring how each can illuminate the other. Books are resonant objects, carrying immediately a range of connotations; they suggest narrative, imply authority and structure. In taking the physical form of the book and breaking it down or changing its shape, I am asking the viewer to consider how that affects the content. Just as a film can give visual expression to a script, in the same way in my pieces I am exploring ways of endowing words with visual form. I am also interested in how much we overlook the technical aspects of a film, the editing and cutting, the fading in and out of scenes – we are so familiar with the language of film that we accept it automatically and are unaware of these techniques, yet are drawn in and emotionally manipulated by them. In my work I am investigating ways of representing and highlighting such techniques and taking the time to consider their visual impact."
We’ve had the last studio meeting ever. Hooray ! No break with tradition – it started over half an hour late. Its also becoming increasingly clear that although I was hoping for a bit of a break once our work was installed and was being assessed – there is going to be a vast amount of waiting around in case we are needed by external examiners etc. This will be rather challenging for me since I have very little patience and can’t bear wasting time. I had to do jury service last summer and it drove me mad. I had to be there from 9.30 and had to sit around till about 3 every day for 8 days – to be called on my second last day for a trial that collapsed after a few hours. I sat in a hot room grimly knitting and felt like one of the tricoteurs at the base of the guillotine. I'm also rather dismayed to find out that our results will be available part way through the show – that's going to be a fun day for us all. I've managed for most of the time not really to think about this and I know that its not terribly relevant to anything. Its just that a bad mark is a bit confidence-destroying. Still, the books are nearly done – I had a good discussion with my tutor about bindings and she’s steered me away from naffness. I have finally resolved Catriona’s book – I’ve moved away from the fabric interiors. Its very simple now – my overwhelming realisation about her being that her character has been so edited that there’s not that much left. So the book has the structure of pages but they are all cut away and the text just appears right in the centre of it. Filleted. I’ve made Robert’s book too – the text of which fades gradually out as the character fades out of the film. I need to spend the next couple of days getting my journal up to scratch – we have to hand them in on Monday morning for feedback. Oh and I managed to get some plinths made – at minimal expense and unbelievably very little effort ! Which is astonishing when I compare it with the effort its taken in the past to get access to any other facilities at the University. I now have three plinths for the princely sum of £3 each. I am going to take a break tonight though and go to a friend’s exhibition – Gill Moore is showing photographs from her recent work ‘The Chorlton Bench Project’ recording and reflecting the importance of green, communal spaces to the local area (www.gillmoorephotography.co.uk).
I wanted to write about Lesley Alexander’s work ([email protected]; www.web.mac.com/lesleyalex2) which is in some ways perhaps what one might expect from a textiles based course in that a large part of it involves stitch – but I think it very much sits in a fine art context as abstract art. Her pieces are preoccupied with colour and texture – indeed saturated with a depth of colour that draws the viewer in. Perhaps unfashionably, they are also executed with great skill.
Her project this year began with her interest in marginal spaces, in disregarded areas of neglected urban wasteland. Lesley explodes the conventional notion of the picturesque by meticulously observing these places, according them the same kind of status and value as the traditional picturesque landscape that is frequently found on tourist postcards. She produced a series of minutely observed pencil drawings of these urban wastelands, finding aesthetic qualities in peeling, rusting, decayed surfaces, examining and recording the process of decay in an industrial, man-made setting. As part of this observational approach she also worked with stitch, using this as a medium for the same investigation of decay. Again, as with many of my contemporaries, Lesley is another artist who sees drawing as a process that goes beyond pencil on paper and into stitch, taking the view that that making marks and creating surfaces with a needle is an extension of drawing.
Lesley has also been interested for a long time in quilts – but with a keen sense of challenging that conventional form with its associations of domesticity and comfort. Bringing into this her textile work with its urban, industrial imagery challenges the viewer to question the purpose and function of a quilt as well as its usual association with typical ‘feminine’ imagery. Her focus has shifted lately into colour – she has been moving away from detailed representational work and increasingly towards the observation of surface and colour, abstracting and extracting that colour and texture. Her pieces now are huge and layered, with pared back colour and intensely worked surfaces. From her observation of a tiny area of texture she creates an often huge piece, referencing its origin not only in colour but in scale – despite its size its surface is made up of thousands of tiny elements of stitch. These pieces record and reflect aspects of the wastelands that are their origin, but in their rich and textured surfaces demonstrate that there is beauty even in decay and neglect.