Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Alice Kettle


Alice Kettle
Belger Art Center, Kansas City, Missouri
May 29 – September 4, 2009

British artist Alice Kettle has long enjoyed international recognition for her painterly approach to large scale machine embroidered work, but this sizable show marks her first major exhibition in the United States. In a country where all things seem to exist in a version larger than their European counterparts, Kettle’s dynamic surfaces hold their own. Her richly worked textiles epitomise the labour intensive processes we associate with much textile work, but rather than becoming precious the results often pack a mighty punch. This is certainly true with this exhibition, which not only relishes the breathing room of the exhibition space, but also allows Kettle’s signature use of metallic thread to glint and gleam in this well lit former industrial space.

Previous work by this artist has often established a direct response to space: her massive touring exhibition of “Mythscapes” in 2004 and 2005 was inspired, in part, by her time in Greece; the large scale work for the Winchester Discovery Centre installed in 2007 references the area’s history. In contrast, this exhibition feels to be the most personal to date. People, rather than places, tend to be a central concern. “Pause” (2009), for example, depicts a ribbon of four connected female figures identifiable as the artist and her three daughters, set against a background of the four seasons. To the left, a ghostly outline of “time” watches the inextricably linked quartet. A celebration of family perhaps, but also a snap shot in time that the artist seems to acknowledge often moves more quickly than we want.

Three works from 2007 stitched, in part, on the Schiffli Embroidery Machine at Manchester Metropolitan University where Kettle is a Research Associate have also made the trip across the Atlantic. “Ormopethesis”, “Nepenthe” and “Orothopendorosis” (2007) all have an unusual repetition of marks that is the result of the Schiffli’s multiple heads simultaneously stitching the same pattern. The latter two in particular suggest the scratchy, agitated doodles of pen on paper, a departure from the more painterly marks her embroidery often captures.

In amongst Kettle’s prolific outpouring of large-scale embroideries, works on paper and ceramics made in collaboration with Stephen Dixon, are three small works that mark a significant departure for the artist. Accompanied by five drawings, “Head I and II” are deconstructed portraits made from cut, collaged cloth. The series suggests the potential of thread both to be torn apart and suture repair. Schizophrenia, trauma and grief are apparent in these faces. But Kettle’s exuberant palette also suggests joy, in spite of the wrenching dislocation at play. Kettle’s handing of her materials in this new series could be read as aggressive. Sections are sliced and the thick edges of her stitched surfaces dangle with raw, loose threads. Only “Cele” from 2008 is void of colour, instead looking like a portrait of bandages or sections of overlaid clay. Louise Bourgeois’ recent series of cloth heads come to mind, works that also seem to suggest that physical and emotional damage is not only survivable, but also hauntingly beautiful.

Kettle’s Head series very much moves “off the grid”, the theme of the Surface Design Association’s Conference this exhibition accompanies, of Kettle’s established and respected practice to date. The departure is no mean feat. Kettle deserves recognition not only for the prolific practice for which many in Britain are familiar, but for the bold risks she has taken to move her work into new and challenging territory.

Exhibitions by Ray Materson, Jennifer Angus and El Anatsui are also installed at the Belger to coincide with the conference.

Selvedge Magazine (July/August 2009: 90)