Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Alice Kettle’s Mythscapes

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Ruthin Craft Centre, Wales

Celebrating the painterly qualities in textile art often runs the risk of sounding as though mimicry of fine art is all textile art should aspire to. But in the case of Alice Kettle’s recent Mythscapes series, comparison to the drawn line and painted brushstroke is inescapable. Far from mimicry, these spontaneous compositions of machine-stitched embroidery reflect a union of textile and fine art. Ghostly figures in the style of a child’s intuitive mark-making are played out across vast picture planes, each thread tracing the nib of an ink pen or tip of a paintbrush. It is Kettle’s ability to capture the expressive qualities of line weight that precede a child’s being taught to write text – or stitch in tidy rows, for that matter – that makes these monumental works unique.

The figures that populate Mythscapes float between the foreground and background of the picture plane. At times, the weight of stitched line is evocative of pentimenti, the ghostlike marks of erased lines that hover beneath the surface of a well-worked drawing. Subject matter for each work in the series is drawn from Homer’s Odyssey, the stuff of classics scholars but also that of the human condition: struggle, triumph, loss, grief, and love. While the heroic myths that Kettle tells in thread are the roots of Western literature today, there is a graffiti-like quality to her renditions, as though she has captured locker-room scrawls from Homer’s Greece.

Possibly it is speed one can sense in her work, reminiscent of graffiti: intuitive sweeps of thread build up the compositions through gestures rather than overly ordered increments. Many of these works are enormous (as much as 12 1/2 feet wide). Sadly, I saw this exhibition at the Ruthin Craft Centre in North Wales, a space that struggled to do justice to work that deserves an exhibition space in which viewers can step back and absorb details from a distance. Regrettably the small main gallery of the Ruthin Centre forced viewers to consider the work only at close distance. From this perspective, Kettle’s metallic threads appear garish, whereas, when viewed from a distance, the same threads give the work their vibrancy. The showing also suffered from division of the work into two spaces (a second room across a courtyard included Kettle’s smaller studies and drawings); the division disrupted the visual continuity of the exhibition and silenced the dialogue that could have occurred between the smaller pieces and the monumental works.

Nonetheless, I did not regret my chance to see these inspiring works. The length and breadth of Kettle’s exhibition tour in the United Kingdom, which began in early 2004 and runs through 2005, is deserved testament to public appreciation of these ambitious textiles.

FiberArts Magazine (Jan./Feb. 2005: 58-59)