Fabric of Myth

The Fabric of Myth
Compton Verney, England
June 21 – September 7, 2008

Curated by Antonia Harrison and James Young this excellent exhibition successfully draws together historical, contemporary, outsider and folk art to explore the unique ability of textiles to convey the narratives of classical mythology. The decision to organise this exhibition by theme (rather than genre, era or technique) allows objects that span centuries, cultures and materials to sit cohesively under a clear theme. Three main sections further group the work: literal depictions of the myths of Ariadne’s thread and the Metamorphosis on cloth, ceramics and paper, followed by contemporary work that draws upon two recurring narratives of classical mythology: “the idea of confinement as a catalyst for creativity in fabric form” and the textile as a form of memory.

A mixture of embroideries, tapestries, illustrated manuscripts and classical artefacts from an eclectic group of artists are included. The artists’ role call includes works by Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, William Homan Hunt, Alice Kettle, Ray Materson, Henry Moore, Elaine Reichek, Bispo Do Rosario, Tilleke Schwarz, Judith Scott, Leonid Tishkov, Michele Walker and Annie Whiles. Two new pieces commissioned for the exhibition by Shane Waltener and Delaine Le Bas are also on display, but both feel hurried, particularly when compared to the skill and intention of previous centuries’ textile production. In addition to the contemporary work lent by the artists, significant national and international loans contribute to the quality and depth of this exhibition. For example, Mary Queen of Scots’ embroidery from The Oxburgh Hangings series circa 1570 is on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum and Joseph Beuys Felt Suit from 1970 lent by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

A 5th century AD tapestry of Ariadne on view in the first room of this sizable exhibition sets the tone from the very start. The sheer history contained in the fibres of this modestly sized weaving provide us with a powerful reminder that so many of the stories we enjoy today are ancient and intimately connected to production of cloth. In visual contrast, the space of the following room is pierced with the sweeping metal arc of Louise Bourgeois’ Needle (Fuseau), grounded at its base with a bundle of un-spun flax threaded through the needle’s eye. Visual contrasts such as these abound and result in a group of objects that not only introduce viewers to the unfamiliar, but also invite us to revisit the familiar from previously overlooked perspectives.

Clothbound, the exhibition’s mid-section and its exploration of confinement as a creative catalyst, proved particularly powerful. Here we see embroideries stitched by the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots, Ray Materson’s miniature embroideries created while in prison for drugs related charges, Judith Scott’s enigmatic windings borne out of what we can interpret as a compulsion for process rather than conclusion and several tremendously powerful works by the South American artist Arthur Bispo Do Rosario who spent the majority of his life in a psychiatric hospital. Cama de Romeu e Julieta (The Bed of Romeo and Juliet) is a magical creation by Rosario with the power to suggest an endless number of potential readings. Interestingly, the artists whose work is displayed in this section did not share a common written or spoken language. (In the case of Scott, no spoken or written word was available for communication.) But the extraordinary power each draws from their chosen materials transcends linguistic boundaries and in many cases communicates far more eloquently than the written or spoken word.

The English countryside in which Compton Verney is set provides a bucolic backdrop for this exhibition. That said, Dr Kathryn Sullivan Kruger’s catalogue essay makes clear that the phenomenon of textiles as narrative vehicles can be found around the world. With this in mind, inclusion of a printed West African Ananse Textile (shown on the catalogue’s cover) provides an important reminder of the contribution textiles have made to the myth making globally. Without exception, the display and documentation of this exhibition is excellent. Ample gallery space provides necessary breathing room, curation provides unexpected and thoughtful combinations and the illustrated catalogue offers a handsome record for those unable to attend in person.

Surface Design Journal (winter 2009: 58-59)