The work of Henry Moore’s is fixed in the public imagination as a world of reclining figures and abstract forms with hollow spaces, cast in bronze on a monumental scale. When calling Moore to mind few people, it seems safe to say, think of dainty headscarves, jazzy curtains and comfy bedspreads.
The new exhibit at Dovecote Studio, the first to show Moore’s textile designs outside his home at Perry Grove, and featuring sketches and notebooks that remained undiscovered until 2006, could change all that.
Stepping across the threshold, it is, at first, very hard to believe that Henry Moore is the man behind the eye-popping designs arrayed on the studio wall. It’s not just the medium - though to see Moore working in silk and rayon rather than stone and bronze is a bit of a shock - it’s the colours. The clashing palette is unmistakably that of the optimistic, forward-looking, atomic 1950s, replete with jolly pinks, acidic lime greens and searing oranges.
Look closer, though, and there is much that is familiar. Family Group, a 1946 design, is familiar, with the extruded, softened forms of the father, mother and child a match for Moore’s monumental carvings of the time, but here, printed on a tiny scale, in seven colours, the scene is domestic, loving, bordering on the cutesy. There are little clues, too, which illuminate Moore’s better known work. The maze-like geometric patterns he sketched for headscarves have a distinctly Mesoamerican look to them, an echo, perhaps, of the Mayan reclining figures that informed Moore’s sculpture. The supposedly primitive pops up again in Heads - which Moore used for his own curtains at home - is an array of animal-like tribal masks.
Elsewhere, another side to Moore emerges, hinting at a rather wicked sense of humour. Tasked with producing designs for luxury fashion items, he picks thoroughly down to earth motifs, undercutting the glamour of silk (and the cod glamour of parachute nylon) by crafting patterns from the most mundane objects, from watering cans and caterpillars to piano keys and safety pins, all doodled with a lightness of touch. There’s even a striking design based on lines of barbed wire that, to modern eyes, looks positively punky.
Moore’s brief, parallel career as a textile designer is largely down to the efforts of Zika Ascher who, having fled Prague in 1939, turned in the post-war years toward artists for his designs, including Henri Matisse and Graham Sutherland. While these artists were happy to puncture the elitist pretensions of fine art in providing designs for mass produced items, they never quite blurred the boundaries between their main artistic practice and forays into the applied arts. In the lower galleries of the Dovecote, which play host to the Jerwood Contemporary Makers group show, it’s hard to draw a line between contemporary, conceptual art and what used to be called applied arts, or, more prosaically, crafts. The Jerwood are obviously aware of this - the foundation used to award an Applied Arts Prize, which, as of 2008, has been replaced by a shared grant for the Contemporary Makers gathered here - and the catalogue essays, while largely sticking to the appellation ‘makers’, uses the language of art criticism to discuss the work on show. This might not matter - the only useful, if tautological, way to define art today is as things presented by artists - if it weren’t for the fact that many of these makers seem to be positioning themselves in the perceived gap between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ craft. And most of them are making art, too, the only clue to a different status coming in their choice of materials, their training, and, ultimately, their inclusion in a show with the word ‘makers’ in its title.
Lin Cheung, ostensibly a jeweller, opens the show with an installation about jewellery, complete with a library of books - all in matching pristine white dust jackets - with titles like The Joy of Jewellrey, The Complete Idiots Guide to Jewellry and Zen and the Art of Jewellrey Making. In a matching all-white reading room, Cheung presents her made artefacts in chairs topped with glass seats. In other words, Cheung obscures here skill at making in a dud art installation.
Nicholas Rena’s series of vessels, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, offer much more. They are huge, deliberately unusable jugs and pots on an almost architectural scale which match pleasingly rounded forms with sharp lines, bearing a surface sheen that comes close to glowing. Tellingly, they are one-offs, not multiples, and yet Rena clearly revels in the crafting of them, generating that sheen by applying layers of acrylic paint before finishing them with wax. The result is pleasingly ambiguous, with superficially useful objects presented for examination and enjoyment, not use.
Diedre Nelson, a graduate of Glasgow School of Art, approaches textile design with a twinkle in her eye. Her Emotionally Embroiderd Shirts, a trio of plain, mass-produced, machine-made garments bear beautiful, pristinely hand-stitched flowers, tucked below their collars. It’s a simple evocation of the subtle feelings we attach to our clothes as we wear them out, and an acknowledgement that those associations, built up over the years, are private - if one of Nelson’s shirts were worn, her work on them would be hidden from view, tickling the nape of the wearer’s neck. Nelson has made more flowers, more delicate still, and mounted them on the sort of foam earplugs handed out at noisy gigs. Again, a mass-produced object is suffused with the suggestion of memories, this time musical.
Memory is to the fore in Clare Twomey’s piece, too, which consists of a rough stripe across one wall of the gallery, with a history of grafitti scratched into its surface. There’s a crudely rendered bunny rabbit, a skull and crossbones, and a rough approximation of the ‘I love NY’ logo. It’s hard to resist the temptation to scratch the surface with a thumbnail, and I doubt Twomey would mind if visitors did: her best known installation featured a floor of fragile tiles, designed to be crushed under foot.
This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 19th December , 2008.