Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Michael Brennand-Wood

Michael_Brennan_Wood_reviewBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Michael Brennand-Wood: “Forever Changes”
September 22 – November 25, 2012
Ruthin Craft Centre, Wales

Michael Brennand-Wood is as prodigious a collector of things, as he is keeper of his own record. His overriding visual preoccupation is with the surface pattern and dimension of textiles. This means he makes textiles in their own right; but as often as not the textile also becomes something else – wood or plastic sculptures, the photographic image. A seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge and collection of music, fabric and ephemera fuel the four decades of work on display here. During this time Brennand-Wood’s output has consistently searched for new ways of seeing and treating the textile as well as alternative contexts for our understanding of materials such as wood and cloth that are traditionally captured under the broad and unwieldy umbrella of craft.

To accompany this extensive exhibition June Hill, the exhibition’s curator, has edited a sizable illustrated catalogue that captures all but the very latest investigations included in the exhibition. As she reveals in her introduction: “That his work should enter a new phase during the gestation period of the project only emphasised the difficulties of encapsulating a career which refuses to be contained by the boundaries of experimentation.”

Brennand-Wood’s taste is not for everyone. Visual clichés often provide stimulus for interrogation. For example, late in this show “Restored and Remixed” (2012), an embroidery on found carpet appears, visually suggestive of “Pac Man meets the Hindu Kush”. Plastic toys, lace and real flower petals enjoy equal attention in his aesthetic hierarchy. Scale is often large and there is often a clear relationship to the wall apparent. Both gestures seem to reject associations with the domestic and instead strive to see the decorative as part of a lineage of visual art. Wall fixed sculptures such as “Holding Pattern” (2007) and “Babel” (2008) can be seen as exemplifying this move; pattern explodes from what was once a two dimensional reference in an optical game of find-the-focal-point.

It is impossible to ignore the web of debates around gender and material that are a part of Brennand-Wood’s career. Without labouring the point, he is a rare male voice in contemporary textile practice. These distinctions should not colour our primary response to the work, but they are important enough to not avoid, even if voicing such observations risks a return to territory many see as tired. (It is interesting to note that his four catalogue essayists are men, potentially a gesture to avoid attention sticking on the point of gender.)

Perhaps more comfortable, but no less resolved, are debates around the disciplinary allegiances and alienations of craft and art. These boundaries are far more policed than the current interdisciplinary moment may want to acknowledge and Brennand-Wood’s career shows the institutional and critical confusion that emerges from creative practice that finds no comfort in disciplinary boxes. While he studied embroidery at what was then Manchester Polytechnic, graduating in 1975, but he offers us embroidery that refuses to operate in familiar ways. His work is too knowing of art history to fit comfortably into the sloppy craft movement; too serious in its engagement with international events (in particular the senselessness of war) to be treated as purely decorative.

After the show loops through Ruthin’s galleries, viewers face a self contained room that encloses his newest experiments. In a recent gallery talk, I heard the artist speak of this work as an antidote to his catalogue writing – a moment when he returned to the realm of an intuitive visual vocabulary. Populated by space age creatures, this work is all the stranger for the absence of contextualisation currently too early to provide. The inclusion of this discrete space within what otherwise operates as a cohesive retrospective is as revealing as all the careful analysis, explanation and reflection that accompanies his earlier work. Creativity is unpredictable and as Brennand-Wood explains in the exhibition catalogue, the latest work offers an “approximation of territory glimpsed, remembered but not yet fully explored.”

This exhibition is the first to occupy all three galleries at the Craft Centre in one fell swoop and it does so comfortably. While the Crafts Centre is regularly commended for the professional quality of its exhibitions, this acknowledgement deserves whole-heartedly repeating once again. Michael Brennand-Wood is an artist whose instinct to translate thought and emotion into material is an endless source of inspiration. Based on the evidence of this handsomely conceived show, I imagine he will continue to follow instincts both explicable and inexplicable regardless of current trends in thought or material.

Selvedge Magazine (issue 51: 88)