Ruthin Craft Centre, Wales
It is easy to assume that humans now know more than they did in the past. To a certain extent this is true. I would not have wanted to visit a Victorian doctor or live without the progress in plumbing and nutrition we take for granted today. But at the same time that our lives are generally lived far more comfortably and for longer, there is an increasing acknowledgement that humankind has arrived at where we are today by treating our planet very, very badly. The future may hold tempting solutions to the pickle we find ourselves in now, but the past is an equally rich repository of knowledge about how we may live in greater sympathy with the land that supports us.
Welsh artist Mary Lloyd Jones draws liberally from symbols of the distant past in an effort to remind us of the knowledge earlier cultures have applied to their relationship with our planet. References to prehistoric carvings such as cup and ring marks that appear across the British isles – and beyond – as well as the stone carvings inside the burial chambers of Barclodiad y Gawres and Bryn Celli Ddu on the island of Anglesey appear in recent works. But references also extend far beyond Lloyd Jones’ own Welsh culture. For instance, a recent trip to the United States was prompted by her interest in Native American belief systems and their relationship to the land. She explains, “History tells us that the Welsh were the first people of Britain… in bringing together the art of prehistoric Britain and that of the Native Americans my aim is to focus on the attitude of both these cultures towards the natural world.”
The burnt, sandstone landscape of New Mexico feels influential to the palette of Lloyd Jones recent work and is a contrast to the moist greens of earlier textile works that evoke the immediate Welsh landscape. Turtle Island it may be – a name adopted in the 1970s by environmental activists and Native American tribes alike that attempts to rewrite North America’s colonial history by acknowledging the reality that both indigenous and colonising cultures now inhabit the land. But perhaps this reading assumes an unnecessary distance. The palette is as easily that of the Welsh copper mines and, close to the artist’s Aberystwyth studio, the lead mines of Cardigan. When pressed to describe her content Lloyd Jones defers to the Native American truism, “the ground is the blood and dust of our ancestors”.
Lloyd Jones intuitively mixes geographic and cultural references, driven not by a rational scientific plan, but by a magpie-like process of selection. In her studio, studies and partially complete works reveal an instinctive process that moves with ease between paper and cloth. She paints and draws with the textile canvas flat on the studio floor, applying textile dyes by circling around – and upon – the flat surface. As a result, finished works feel robust rather than precious and follow no particular orientation – up or down – left or right. At the same time they lack the aggression that the male icons of art history such as Jackson Pollock, notorious for throwing his paint onto the canvas in a devil-may-care attitude, have given us.
The stone carvings Lloyd Jones references in her current work will far outlast the textile. Nonetheless, their translation from the fixed, located origins of the land to the portable, often domestic, associations we hold for the textile may help to bring their meaning closer to home. Acrylic paint is used to draw these ancient shapes directly on the cloth and, at times, a wax crayon applied in the final stages. Both are visually deceptive because the building of colour and marks suggests that some type of resist process is at work. She has worked extensively with batik in the past, a process in which wax is used to create a protective layer on cloth before dyeing. Curiously, the craft of batik requires thinking in reverse. Rather than building up colour in layers, it requires planning out which areas need to be protected from colour. This process is not technically how Lloyd Jones has created this recent series, but her prior experience feels present in this current work. The result is a sense of layered colour that looks as though it has been bled away, or masked out during the painting process – an impossible achievement for the artists of the past etching marks into stone.
Painted and drawn phrases in Welsh and English appear throughout the large-scale works, often rough and imperfect in their shaping like the etched and chipped shapes of ancient stone carvings. Unlike stone, Lloyd Jones works on the surface of heavy calico, the same cloth that acts as a canvas for traditional painting. Here it remains un-stretched and unframed. By comparison her work is far more fluid in composition than what we would think of as a typical landscape painting and both her working method and decision to present the cloth hung away from the wall with rough edges all leave the formality of a stretched canvas behind. Instead, these “maps” of instinct rather than geography are contained by asymmetrical edges, some torn, none behaving comfortably within the tidy expectations of the white cube gallery space. In fact Lloyd Jones dismisses the traditional conventions of gallery display, quoting from the Native American Black Elk who observed of our architectural conventions, “There can be no power in a square”. Think of her content and this logic makes sense: the carvings of peoples from so long ago were never framed or contained either. The integration of stone carvings with the landscape is seamless. Lloyd Jones presents us with something less than seamlessness, but potential barriers are minimal: the framer’s glass is taken away, the back is at times visible and edges reveal the thickness of her material.
There are other comparisons to be made, such as the large stitched and painted works by another Welsh artist, Eleri Mills. Here too the scale and the demands of production belie the physical stature of the artist. Unusually, Mills stitches her large works standing and walking – a far cry from the cramped image of the Victorian embroiderer. But whereas Mills refers to poetic, rather than literal, inspiration drawn from the Welsh landscape, Lloyd Jones creates a collage of physical realities. Drawings from her sketchbooks of site visits to stone carvings make a direct appearance in larger finished works. They are not tracings from the actual stone face, but the artist’s hand capturing the gesture of another artist’s hand made millennia earlier.
Lloyd Jones joins a growing group of artists working large scale with textile techniques whose concern for our treatment of the planet is an overriding preoccupation in their work. Japanese artist Machiko Agano, for example, shares with Lloyd Jones an attention to the health of our natural world today. Testament to this concern is Agano’s shift from the natural materials that were the mainstay of her practice for decades, towards an artificial aesthetic, which she has explained as her response to the “fake nature” of contemporary living. Recent works such as Woods (2011) made of ink jet on polyester and mirror sheet tower above and around the viewer creating an immersive experience that brings the viewer’s reflection into the changing surface of the work. Or Philippa Lawrence’s Bound (2003-ongoing), a series of brightly wrapped trees that first spread across the old counties of Wales and has grown to include Bound V-57 (2011) at the Morton Arboretum in northern Illinois, near Chicago. Agano laments the concrete jungle that has become the norm for so many lives, while Lawrence began Bound to address issues of land ownership, acquisition and use. Both ask us, like Lloyd Jones, to stop taking our immediate environment for granted.
A sense of saturation is also present in these works. Many are double sided, intended for viewing in the round. In his novel Snow Country, the Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata writes, “The thread was spun in the snow, and the cloth was woven in the snow, washed in the snow and bleached in the snow. Everything, from the first spinning of the thread to the last finishing touches, was done in the snow.” Lloyd Jones works with a similar connection to landscape, the difference being that hers is not a single location responsible for the making, cleaning and colouring of cloth. Instead, her landscape is near and far, familiar and uncommon. But the sense permeation that Kawabata provides, a feeling that the cloth is saturated with the land, is shared. Her double-sided works make it impossible to relegate the back of the work. Front and back are of equal importance. As is the past, when looking to understand our futures.
Professor Jessica Hemmings, May 2013