While I was at my mother’s this weekend I went up to the Castle Museum in Nottingham to a show of contemporary textiles, part of which was Rhiannon Williams’ remarkable one-woman exhibition, ‘Critical Cloth’. First of all, I really love that title, and I expect I shall be using it shortly, with proper acknowledgement, of course. But the main thing was that I really loved the show. I thought it was the best kind of conceptual art in that it had real concepts behind it, not just what ifs, and it was witty. And the standard of work in it was exquisite. I know from experience that stitching paper is not easy, but here was beautifully finished work.
Williams’ pieces are all based on the hexagon and are made in paper. They embrace grand themes: time, loss, identity, investment, memory, hope, work, money, speed, slowness, obsession. There is also an inspirational essay in the slim volume-type catalogue which she wrote about her monumental project to stitch Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu into a series of patchwork pieces. I like the George Herbert-esque setting out of some of the text as a hexagon as she writes about hexagons:
She is playing with the bits of text revealed when the hexagons are cut, which are legible but still cryptic as beginnings and ends of words are lost. This is a huge on-going project which will take years to complete – at least as long as the book took to compose, as she wryly points out.
Other works were about the sheer administrative grind of being an artist applying for grants and other forms of funding, with the application forms used as the papers for the English method hexagons, or about the unfolding financial crisis as she used newspaper reports to construct patches and watched the story develop through the papers she cut. The piece in the picture at the top of the page is made from lottery tickets which did not win anything but which are forming an on-going, unfurling strip of patchwork which now has to be approached gingerly as its volume makes it fragile – the paper tears and repairing the start is turning into as significant a job as adding the new pieces. I also loved the secondary patterns in her work – so here the lottery logo swirls over the surface. In the piece on funding, Hoops for My Art to Jump Through, patterns emerged as she folded the paper to enable the piecing, making the tracks and traces which so interest Tim Ingold in his work on line. This piece also had very cartographic splashes of colour where the forms came in strangely map-like pastels.
I think I enjoyed it so much because I felt that it was encountering a fascinating intelligence behind the work, which sounds very pretentious, but I really felt that here was someone with a sincere, life-long practice – the lottery piece will continue for the rest of her life, and the Proust will not be finished any time soon! This was real inquiry rather than just wouldn’t it be interesting to deconstruct this frock or to immerse it in a tank of bleach until it dissolves. I often think, interesting, yes, but to what purpose? Williams seemed to me to be working with the studio-based practice model of Barrett and Bolt, two Australian fine artists that I really like, who talk about starting with an area they want to explore, making, listening to the work (‘revelation’) and then writing about it (‘exegesis’). Williams closes the circle, which is why it was intellectually satisfying as well as super-skilled and aesthetically delightful in its calmness and restraint. It had a real classicism in its strict form and restricted palette.
I could go on about this all day, but I wanted to write about something which was gorgeous and clever, alluring and funny.
It’s a small exhibition and there is a great cafe. Nottingham Castle Museum seems to have taken a policy decision to embrace textiles which form such a large part of the City’s heritage, a decision which is rare and brave in cash-strapped times which still can’t cope with fibre art as fine art. All good reasons to go and see it. (http://www.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=14153)