Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Batik Transitions

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS & KENRI KIM

Batik Transitions: From Classic to Contemporary

September 14-17, 2006
The Knitting and Stitching Show at the NCE, Birmingham, England
October 12-15, 2006
The Knitting and Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace, London, England
November 23-26, 2006
The Knitting and Stitching Show at Harrogate Exhibition Centre, England
December 9, 2006 – January 20, 2007
The Gloucester Museum and Art Gallery, England
January 27 – March 11, 2007
The Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, Birkenhead, Merseyside, England
March 23 – May 26, 2007
The Worthing Museum & Art Gallery, West Sussex, England
April 24 – August 12, 2007
Traditional Batik at the Bath Museum of East Asian Art (no contemporary work)

This seven-venue exhibition marks the twentieth anniversary of Britain’s Batik Guild and offers viewers a taste of both contemporary and traditional batik. The Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, the exhibition’s penultimate venue, included examples of traditional batik on loan from private collectors, a demonstration area and contemporary work by Guild members.

Situating the demonstration table inside the exhibition meant that the scent of warm wax lingered in the air, an evocative reminder of the unusual process that governs this resist technique. Also helpful was the inclusion of three traditional panels in varying stages of completion. Like other resist processes, batik requires the designer to think in reverse, planning which areas to protect from dye and which to expose. As this anniversary exhibition was meant not only to celebrate existing batik, but also to encourage others to take up the craft, these educational elements offered helpful introductions to the basic principals.

While the decision to place traditional examples at the front of the gallery makes sense chronologically, it also served to show that the fineness and sensitivity of craftspeople of the past is often poorly replicated with our contemporary skills. The skilful work found in a beautiful coat with batik panels and intricate embroidery, on loan from the African textile scholar John Gillow, for example, found no rivals amongst the work in the contemporary section. Situating the historical textiles at the end of the exhibition would not have offered a better solution, but the possibility of combining old and new may have encouraged a more dynamic relationship between works. In its current configuration, the two felt quite separate. The bulk of contemporary work is personal in nature and no longer aspires to function as a textile, instead embracing the role of wall hanging and even framed portrait. In contrast, the traditional work varies greatly in colour, pattern and material but is united by culturally defined traditions that adhere to established meanings governing the use of colour and pattern. Aesthetic and conceptual connections provide difficult to establish, in part because of the configuration of the exhibition display.

While cotton and silk are popular fabrics for batik, a number of works on paper were also included. Less interesting were those that were visually akin to watercolour. But some, such as Diana Fenney’s “Structures: London Eye”, provided a fresh perspective. Helen Dougall’s “New Zealand Garden” also stood out with work cut into sections and reconfigured to offset the imagery thereby abstracting the content. While the majority of contemporary work came from artists based in Britain, a smattering of European countries were also represented. The Belgian artists Hetty van Boekhout’s “Found Object I and II” and Helene de Ridder’s “In Other Words” evidenced a particularly original style that relied on abstract rather than figurative imagery and a limited palette. Both works had a contemplative sensibility, but presented an original response to contemporary practice. Situated at the back of the gallery, “Adrift” a large work by the Guild’s President and celebrated batik artist Noel Dyrenforth stood out not only in scale, but also in the complexity of mark making.

Raising the technical as well as conceptual standards of contemporary work would perhaps allow it to stand on a more equal footing with the exquisite traditional examples on display. Situating Dyrenforth’s “Adrift” alongside a traditional cloth, for example, may have helped viewers see not only the similarities, but also the differences in process and meaning that contemporary batik artists explore today.

An informative illustrated catalogue covering a number of regions in which traditional batik is produced as well as descriptions of techniques from practicing artists accompanies the exhibition.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2007: 52-53)