Caroline Broadhead: interrupted gaze

Caroline Broadhead

British artist Caroline Broadhead creates the type of work that makes you mistrust your eyes. When we meet she has just returned from the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State where she was Artist in Residence. Blown glass spheres with reflective centers that cunningly slip from view lie, half unpacked, and the studio floor is covered with a giant paper template of a lace curtain and pieces of cut mirror –all preparations for her upcoming solo exhibition at the Barrett Marsden Gallery in London. This new work builds upon “Proposal for Space” which was displayed at the 2006 COLLECT, held in the Victoria and Albert Museum. For the event, Broadhead covered one wall with shaped, cut mirror. A second wall at a 90-degree angle to the first caught the mirror’s reflections, creating layers of pattern through an almost indistinguishable mixture of mirror, reflection and shadow. The trick is discerning the tangible from the intangible. As often as I explain to myself what I am seeing, my eyes remain convinced otherwise. “It is very hard to disbelieve your eyes,” Broadhead agrees when I confess to the spatial confusion her work can cause. She explains that “the interruption of the gaze” is central to many of her explorations. Traces, ghosts and shadows predominate: versions of versions that subtly alter scale or material and often contain a doppelganger cast on the wall, drawn with pencil, or printed smaller or large, cut thicker or thin.

Born in 1950, Broadhead trained as a jeweler but the better part of her career has occupied that slippery terrain known as the interdisciplinary. Textiles and jewelry seem to both want to lay claim to her work and then proclaim frustration when her work refuses to fit within the boundaries. Such disputes are petty, but also indicative of the space Broadhead has had to mark for herself, a space that is not comfortably one thing or another, but is most certainly informed by multiple (both material and disciplinary) perspectives. Her years as a jewelry student at what was then the Central School of Art and Design in London “weren’t a terribly inspiring time – partly because I was such an awful student.” “The time at the Central,” as she refers to formal education “was not my way of working at all.” One senses that possibly even then, Broadhead did not fit easily into the expectations of any one discipline or approach to making. Her career has proven that this unease with categorization has been beneficial to her practice. In 1997 she was awarded the prestigious Jerwood Prize for Applied Arts: Textiles. Today her list of public collections includes the likes of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Some of Broadhead’s most familiar work explores the female dress shape, but does not exclusively rely on textile materials to do so. She explains that the dress is of interest not because it is textile – or even female – but because it provides a canvas for broader investigations. “My interest in clothing is because of its closeness to the human being, but without being a portrait or a study or anything literal,” she explains. The dress “speaks of the whole person” in a way that a shirt or trousers could not. It also conjures a “sense of occasion”, something lacking in men’s clothing, which she perceives “does not have that fantasy element.” Nonetheless, Broadhead remains ambivalent towards the feminist readings that seem to attach themselves her work. Such issues are not at the forefront of her mind, although she acknowledges that having shared a house with three stepdaughters and two step-daughters has likely had some impact on the issues that surface in her practice. Closer to her heart is a scrutiny of the gaze, how it might be interrupted both knowingly and unknowingly via materials that conceal or suggest multiple perspectives.

More recently Broadhead’s work has engaged with the site-specific and, perhaps inevitably, has shifted to a much larger scale in answer these new challenges. “Breathing Space” was installed in the deconsecrated church of York St. Mary’s in England in the latter half of 2005. Here, Broadhead moved far beyond that of the scale of the body by constructing a plane across the medieval space that acted, symbolically at least, as both floor and ceiling. Broadhead explains that the experience of “walking on headstones” in the church space brought her to the idea of “putting oneself underneath” a surface. Working with polyester wadding usually found in quilts, she suspended the fabric with nylon thread and lead washers. At each suspension point the materials puckered upward in gather points similar to upholstery buttons in an old leather armchair. While traditional church architecture has long been designed to encourage us to focus upward, “Breathing Space”, as Lynne Green observes, “leveled, homogenized and democratized…the hierarchy of spaces within the church.” The result was a conflicting sense of entrapment and weightlessness, which was heightened by the accompanying sound installation of baby’s breathing.

Broadhead’s most recent work recreates the textile in hand cut mirror. Based on an enlarged lace-curtain pattern, Broadhead has set about translating this dated style of interior decoration. The curtain would have hung in front of a window, acting as a thin membrane separating public from private space. Broadhead notes how easily we overlook such boundaries explaining, “we only notice glass if it’s dirty or damaged. It’s an invisible layer we look through, rather than look at.” In contrast “the screening or filtering qualities of the curtains creates a division … by interrupting the gaze at a certain point.” But lace curtains in particular often obscure rather than conceal. Broadhead has cut each section with a jeweler’s saw, causing the material to look pixelated along edges that are cut at right angles to each other. The pixel is something we more comfortably associate with computer-generated graphics, screens we sit in front of, but do not reflect back on the viewer. In contrast, the mirror forces the viewer to become part of the work, albeit in sections. We cannot see the work without standing in front of it. By taking up this position to see we are immediately reflected and recorded on the fragmented surface. The challenge, Broadhead explains, is “making up the bits in-between.”

Surface Design Journal (winter 2007: 28-33)