(Not an OCA) Textile Study Visit

OCA frequently runs study visits for students in various disciplines. Last month Lizzy wrote an exciting post here, about a Textiles Study visit to Whitworth Gallery in Manchester led by tutors Liz Smith and Pat Hodson. It sounded wonderful, with preparation and tasks and group discussion. I was very jealous. It’s 30 years since I was last in the UK and I can’t see a trip happening any time soon, so no study visits for me (cue mournful music).

Trying to content myself by living vicariously I read the various forum posts of students on the visit. I also contacted Lizzy and OCA, and Liz Smith was happy to send me her briefing notes, visit plan and a sheet on a Critical Approach to viewing works of art.

Then Claire and I came up with a Plan – we would have our own Textile Study Visit.

Today we met up in the city, and caught a ferry over to Manly on the north shore (note yellow and green ferry plus fortuitous rainbow). Our destination was the Manly Art Gallery and Museum which currently has three textile-related exhibitions showing. Contemporary Quilt Textiles is a biennial juried exhibition, a collaboration between the Gallery and the Quilters’ Guild of NSW. The Gallery is running a number of events in conjunction with the exhibition, so Claire and I timed our Visit to include a discussion on narrative threads in contemporary textile art by Australian textile artists Liz Williamson, Cecillia Heffer and Paula do Prado.

The exhibition theme is Regeneration, and Manly Art Gallery has provided a downloadable pdf of the catalogue on their website (here, if the link still works). This was particularly handy because it meant Claire and I could Prepare, and I even wrote up some briefing notes and Tasks with timings and options, drawing heavily on Liz  Smith’s notes (Claire was kind enough not to laugh at the instruction “Get together with the rest of the group members”). With information from the catalogue I was even able to give a choice of themes, and since I thought that was pretty good for an outing for two, I’ll share:

Theme 1: The stories behind the works. From the catalogue: “We know there is heightened public interest in the stories behind the material object – who made it, how, why and with what intent – for whom?” The exhibition has “creative process displays [which] complement and enrich the primary display of the finished art quilts”.

How is this done? Is it successful? Should artworks speak for themselves, giving space for the viewer to participate in giving meaning to the work?

Theme 2: regeneration.  A variety of general approaches/responses to the exhibition theme were identified based on information in the catalogue – the human condition; the natural world (fiery regeneration and Other); process/technique. Select one of these for further investigation.

Do the works identified actually fit the sub-theme? What are the differences in approach within a theme? Does one of the works particularly appeal to you or appear more successful? Why? Use the Critical Approach list to examine that work.

Theme 3: technique. The catalogue highlights the use of computer technology and in particular photography and image manipulation. There is also a wide range traditional textile techniques, some of which may have been applied in new ways or to new materials. Select one or two works which demonstrate these trends and contrast their approaches.

Theme 4: narrative threads in textile art.  Based on material in the catalogue or your own scanning of the exhibition, select one or more works which illustrate the use of narrative threads in textile arts. Use the Critical Approach list to examine the work in more detail. Consider the nature of the narrative and how well you feel it has been communicated in the work.

The gallery staff were incredibly friendly and helpful. In general photography is not permitted in the exhibition, but they allowed us to take general photos of the rooms as long as we didn’t focus on particular works. Later when we wanted to spend some time focusing on our Selected works, they fetched chairs for us, and even offered a cup of tea at one point.
We started by going around the two rooms of the exhibition, getting a general impression and choosing one work in each room for detailed study.

The tables you see in this photo contain the “creative process displays” which are intended to “complement and enrich” viewing of the finished art works (quotes are from the catalogue). I had mixed feelings about these. I found it hard not to look at the process displays before spending time with the actual works. There was a lot of variation in the contents – I think the artists had mixed opinions too.
The first piece I focused on was Black Water #32: into the light… by Judy Hooworth. It’s the diptych right of centre, a light colour piece over a brownish one. (Check the catalogue pdf – link above – for a better photo). I sat with it a long time, considering content, form, process and mood as suggested by the Critical Approach notes. The amount of information available in the catalogue and process display was almost too much. For example while I was attracted to the scribbly swirls of the work I didn’t see them as abstract – they were clearly representational of the ripples of water in the rain. I might have wondered about ecological concerns being expressed, not knowing of the artist’s personal journey of grief and loss expressed through depiction of a favourite location. In the talks later both Cecillia Heffer and Paula do Prado spoke about works that were private. They still made the work, but chose not to include imagery, instead allowing their audience to find their own story and meaning in the work. Cecillia described it as gaps, silences and unanswered questions in another’s story.

Originally I had thought my timetable for the day allowed ridiculous amounts of time, but after intense focus on just one piece I was ready for lunch. Claire and I walked back to Manly Wharf for some very nice thai food, and a great chat about our assignment work and what everyone’s doing (all the student blogs really help in feeling part of the student community).

I’ve added some photos of the plantlife around, just for some local colour.

After lunch we returned to focus on a work in the second room. However we didn’t have much time before people started arriving for the scheduled talks. An advantage was that I could take a photo of an individual artwork. This is Toni Valentine with her work Regenerating Colour.

The speakers were all interesting. Cecillia Heffer illustrated her talk with a series of slides of her works, but rather than commenting on them directly she read from letters she wrote and received while developing them. Lace is her major focus, organising spaces as well as the solid motif, and she talked about the gaps and spaces of our homeland, of absences and immigration. Paula do Prado has just completed her Masters at COFA. An immigrant to Australia she talked about inclusion and exclusion, about cloth as an archive and capturing the family history and knowledge she fears losing.

Liz Williamson started by saying that every textile has a story attached, even the (very ordinary) tablecloth on the speakers’ table. She talked about textiles reflecting a peoples’ attitude to the world, for example in an area of India where weaving is predominantly men’s work, and embroidery women’s. A later slide showed Xanana Gusmão around the time East Timor gained its independence, wearing a scarf woven on a backstrap loom – a particular cloth, woven in a particular way, using particular motifs. The meaning, the sense of place and time that a textile can give!

Overall I feel our first Study Visit was fun, worthwhile and exhausting. It’s a strange approach to scan the works as a whole and then focus deeply on just a few. I think that Claire and I to some extent both felt we were somehow not showing full respect to those artists whose work we didn’t concentrate on. However I wouldn’t have the time or stamina to give that level of attention to all. By making selections I was able to clarify some of my own interests and objectives, as well as gain a deeper appreciation of those works. I definitely want to use the Critical Approach again, but probably with some rebalancing of time so I have a bit more of a general understanding and appreciation of the exhibition as a whole.

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