There is currently an exhibition of Matthew Harris’ work along with that of his partner, Cleo Mussi, who is a mosaicist, at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath. It’s on until 3 April. The exhibition is called ’50/50 Working in Parallel’ and is hung so that Harris’ work is down one wall and Mussi’s down the other, so you could go to the exhibition and easily see the work of one and not the other.
I quite like Mussi’s work, but I really love Harris’. Mussi makes beautify mosaic, sometimes on a very grand scale:
This is a less than satisfactory photo I took of one of her pieces which is a public building in Stroud, but it serves to show how big they are. What I like about her work is the way she uses very simple outline shapes but fills them with intricate designs:
I also liked the way that some of the small pieces in the Bath show played with the idea of making the sweet sinister and the sinister sweet. So pretty dolls’ faces were attached to odd bodies and strange hybrid creatures emerged in bright, hard, shiny colours. She also showed some exquisite sketchbooks in the central display cabinets.
But I really loved Harris’ work because it showed me something new. Both artists were working from inspiration from their trip to Japan, and Harris’ textiles showed the clear influence of traditional Japanese forms and the wabi sabi concept of age revealing the true beauty of materials as they change over time (at least that’s what I got from the show). Mussi’s work shows a much more contemporary Japanese influence, a bit reminiscent of the Harajuku Girls. Harris’ work is a lot quieter, and I loved the way that so much of it wasn’t padded with wadding but with folding, so layers and layers of cloth folded and then very beautifully seamed together in a way I couldn’t quite work out. Although it looks really distressed and ancient, it is immaculately put together. The angles are precise and the stitching is strikingly even which gives it a strangely reassuring quality. Here’s a detail of work which is not in the show but which gives an indication of his style:
I loved the way he painted the cloth and cut it up and reassembled it. Just so full of energy given the muted form. I loved the stripes and want to start to experiment with a similar aesthetic a bit myself, just to see. In fact, I loved it so much I went mad and bought a piece, a very small piece that I fell in love with, so I will be able to supply some much better photos when I can get my hands on it at the end of the show – before it goes to the framers.
But Harris is particularly interesting as a male textile artist, and has things to say about his craft. In the January/February 2011 number of Crafts, he talks about the art/craft divide:
I must admit, I flinch slightly at the term textile artist. If you’re a painter no one says you are a paint artist. There’s a thing in craft, a kind of justification. I consider myself to think and work as an artist, but the materials I choose are textiles rather than paper… I think wall based textiles is quite a difficult area in terms of showing , and non-functional textiles is difficult in terms of selling. It has a very big audience of enthusiasts. They are much more interested in how you do something, they want to go away and make what you make.
Lloyd-Jones, Teleri, (2011) ‘Double Vision’, Crafts, Jan-Feb, 42-45: 45
I was interested, but not particularly surprised to see him engaging with the art/craft debate, and this is a theme I am bound to return to, especially if I ever get down to writing my book, but it was also insightful about how people ‘consume’ his shows. I certainly went with my sketchbook, and spent a fair amount of time figuring out how he did it. As I say, I am looking forward to being able to handle a piece to see what he does. And, happily, a lot of the work had sold, not the big, beautiful, expensive pieces, but a lot of the smaller almost sketches for other work.
So the upshot is that this is a great exhibition for showing something new in textiles, quite a radical re-working of a sort of quilt, with a very strong intellectual project. Well worth a trip.