Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Maxine Bristow: Sensual Austerity


Sensual Austerity by Maxine Bristow
July 22 – September 10, 2006
The Hub: National Centre for Craft & Design
September 23 – November 4
Bolton Museums Art Gallery and Aquarium

Maxine Bristow’s work literally embeds and wraps itself in and around the architecture of her public exhibition sites, a practice that engages with context in the most concrete sense. All her chosen materials – canvas, gesso and thread – fall within an unassuming palette of greys. Her techniques – needlepoint and stitch – are so technically accomplished that her work runs the risk of looking easy to make. Yet her voice, echoing at the venue, told a different story: the compelling taped interview reveals the contradiction between appearance and how we are told the work is made. What is intriguing is the anxious energy to create that she articulates is wholly absent from the material of the work, which seems to have absorbed and hidden the tensions or struggles of its production.

There is also an element of camouflage at play in this exhibition. The main gallery’s three central columns proffer handrails, curious not only because of their unnecessary location, but also because they are wrapped in cloth. I wondered how much greater the impact might have been if, when climbing the stairs to the exhibition, I felt that the handrail I was using (and likely taking for granted) was another of Bristow’s interventions? I do understand the practical challenges to working this way. If touch were not only invited, but also delivered in such an unassuming way, the work would likely be damaged over time or, worse yet, overlooked entirely. But still I wonder if this risk is worth taking.

At the Hub, “Barrier Units” were clustered together in an alcove with doors on either side that led onto balconies. Rather than pretending to function, they seemed to sit in waiting, stored for an upcoming event. Seen close together as a group I began to think, not only of the boundaries and demarcations of the gallery space, but also of more dynamic contexts. Track and field hurdles, I must confess, sprang to mind. In part because I began to imagine what an impossible course they now represented, hurdles too high to step over, but too close to jump between. Antithetical objects that invite, rather than spurn, touch.

I found “Conduit ref: 203/18” to be the least engaging of the works on display. While the meaning of the term function is to be taken in the broadest sense throughout the exhibition, elsewhere it is suggested in a manner that intrigues. While the discreet rows of light switches in the hallway leading to the gallery hallway masquerade as some unusual electric circuit at the exhibition venue, their physical repetition along the wall failed to spark.

In contrast, the central room of the exhibition was filled with a carefully balanced symmetry of sculptures. In fact the out-of-the-way room heighten the sense that while this may be an exhibition, it may equally be a storage area for containers of unknown goods. The canvas bags, covered with cracked gesso, seem to balance the time required in their making with the time required to observe and appreciate their unassuming surfaces. Matching pairs, catching subtle shifts, trying to see the odd one out – all these tricks of the eye engage the viewer in a form of observation remarkably similar to Bristow’s own practice: counting, matching, measuring, pairing off, lining up.

The passion behind this work is clear, but so too is an admission not often articulated publicly within textile art: that this labour is tedious. Admittedly, Bristow also speaks of the pleasure found in the rhythms of her making, a place of concentration that allows the hands to take over from the mind. But by also voicing the tedium that this work requires, she exposes a refreshing honesty about the ways and means of contemporary textile art. For too long we have acknowledged the boredom that Victorian women felt over the production of their textiles (both functional and decorative). The fact that this tedium does not escape contemporary practice – in spite of our efforts to suffuse work with layers of historical and contextual referents – is not a downfall, but an aspect of the field rarely openly discussed.

Crafts Magazine (2006: 62)