Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Boys Who Sew


British Crafts Council, February 5th – April 4th, 2004
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales, May 29th – July 17th, 2004
MAC, The Art Centre for Birmingham, September 11th – November 6th, 2004
Huddersfield Art Gallery, Huddersfield, January 15th – March 25th, 2005

Curated by Janis Jefferies, “Boys Who Sew” presents an eclectic mixture of satire, subversion and kitsch. Ironically, only one of the seven male artists included in the exhibition engage specifically with stitched textile production, the others exploring a wide range of media including digital printing, video and performance art and found object assemblage. Such humorous contradictions flavor the entire exhibition which is far more interested in challenging the preconceptions viewers bring to textiles made by men than celebrating the world of embroidery. Refreshingly, sexual orientation is only one of a diverse group of themes tackled by the show. Cultural displacement, material perception, exoticism, rehabilitation and fantasy all make the cut.

The tone of “Boys Who Sew” is both mocking and generous. The questions raised are largely public rather than private in nature and rely on a subversive play with assumed expectations of the audience. In contrast to a heavy handed curatorial stance which can force resolution and unwarranted clarity, curator Janis Jefferies describes her role as that of “orchestrating an anthology.” If the exhibition is indeed to be understood as an anthology, its participants are deceptively varied. In editing, Jefferies has avoided any tendency to compile a “greatest hits” list of men working with textiles. The result is unconventional, and one can safely assume that was the point.

The seven artists, Brett Alexander, Satoru Aoyama, Ben Cook, Craig Fisher, Gregory Leong, Hew Locke and Fernando Marques Penteado present a truly international cross section of artists working with textiles. Australian Brett Alexander’s unmistakable commentary on homophobia and uniformity is played out in his use of text and the shape of a generic, distorted grey school uniform. The garment reappears in a more hybrid form in Gregory Leong’s sculptures which combine distinctive clothing shapes and text from Chinese and Australian culture. Leong’s overgrown creations and accompanying video art express what he sees as the postcolonial displacement caused by his Chinese and Australian heritage.

Portuguese/Brazilian artist Fernando Marques Penteado’s work for “Prison Speech” involved teaching textile workshops to prisoner’s serving life sentences in UK prisons and uses the textile for its communicative and reflective possibilities. Born in South Africa but resident in the UK, Craig Fisher’s reworking of familiar objects disrupts both the mundane and the threatening. Here, as in other works by Leong and Lock, recognizable objects become humorous when reworked and rearranged in fabric. Hew Lock’s sense of the carnival stems from his childhood in Guyana. The voodoo-like creations he constructs play on ideas of the “other” as well as a weariness and skepticism regarding the truth or validity of the exotic.

British artist Ben Cook and Japanese artist Satoru Aoyama take up more material investigations. Through a combination of craft and technology based transferals, Cook prints and frames details of surface flaws. The deceptive beauty of these hybrid works belies the fact that they are in truth “mistakes.” The only artist to focus on stitch, Aoyama is perhaps the least subversive of the group in his Lucian Freud-like scrutiny of those close to him. Aoyama’s sewn portraits dwell on corporeal flaws such as blemishes on the skin built up through layers of embroidery.

Textiles are used by this group of artists both because of their material qualities and the dialogue with the traditional lineage of craft practice which they wish to challenge. The implications of the exhibition opening at The British Craft Council certainly warrants consideration. Home of many process and material oriented exhibitions, the ambivalence captured by the works in “Boys Who Sew” is a step into somewhat uncharted territory for the venue. Little on display is conventionally beautiful, nor are the political, social and moral dialogues introduced particularly righteous or angry. Humor acts as a deceptively seductive entry into works that ultimately consider weighty matters. Within what would seem to be a stifling curatorial theme, what is revealed is that there is nothing continuous, consistent or homogenized about boys who sew. Once again craft has been hijacked and redefined. While it seems amazing to think at this point that the beleaguered word has any firm connotations left to its name, craft does continue to remain associated with women rather than men, the personal rather than the political, decoration rather than subversion. For as long as these connotations remain intact exhibitions such as “Boys Who Sew” will continue to prove useful, even provocative.

Surface Design Journal (winter 2005: 48-49)