Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

PURL: six artists inspired by MoDA’s collections


The Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, Middlesex University, England
April 6 – August 29, 2004

Museums of design – in particular domestic design – are often torn between the ideals laid out in their mission statement and the need to attract public interest in the exhibitions they mount. This is evidenced in the current controversy surrounding the direction of London’s Design Museum and the role fashion in particular should play in “serious” design establishments. In light of such controversy MoDA’s reputation in Britain as a “museum of the history of the home” may seem to be an unenviable one. But exhibitions such as the recently mounted PURL are only all the more valuable for their ability to successfully tackle public disinterest in the domestic by infusing historically based collections with new works from both Fine Art and Craft.

In the case of PURL six artists – Laurie Addis, Michelle Charles, Michelle Grabner, Jane Langley, Kathleen Mullaniff and Jennifer Wright – were invited to create work that engaged directly with MoDA’s collection. The opportunity exhibitions such as this one afford artists to respond to established museum collections offers an ideal way to bring new blood into historical collections while raising public interest and understanding about the richness of the existing collection. Invitations for artists to create works that respond to museum collections or historical sites seem to be more commonplace in Britain, although PURL addressed this rebalance in part by inviting three American artists along with three British artists to make up the group. Possibly the sheer density of museums and historic sites in the British Isles is responsible for this trend in work that is made in response to historic collections, but I also wonder if it is indicative of a greater effort to make historic collections relevant and accessible to a broader public audience.

The work generated by PURL filled one upper room and a stairwell at the MoDA. The responses created all play with the notion of craft at one or even multiple removes from the original. Despite the diversity of responses, each made clear that the textile and its relationship to repetitive working processes, floral motifs, and the organizational grid of weave and embroidery resurface even after a number of mutations. Thread is rendered in paint; the woven structure graphed in beads and stretched hoops of embroidery reworked as circular paintings on wood. In each case the material is altered, but in many of the reinterpretations or translations remain powerfully evocative of the textile.
The premise of the exhibition is an excellent one, marred only by the absence of concrete references to the collection. While this absence allowed each work to speak on its own terms rather than comparative ones, viewers such as myself who were unfamiliar with the museum collection may have found it difficult to clearly envision the connections each artist established with the museum collection. I was unsure if these works responded to the MoDA collection as a whole or to one specific item from the collection. Perhaps this detail is irrelevant for some viewers, but I would have enjoyed a closer glimpse at specific inspirations behind each work. What was certainly in evidence is the central role concept plays in craft today. One of the challenges of drawing inspiration from historical works is the sheer level of skill and craftsmanship found in work from earlier times. I suspect that the difficultly in rivalling the craftsmanship and maker’s hand of the past explains, at least in part, a burgeoning interest in digital reinterpretations and concept driven responses.

Gill Saunders, author of the introductory essay for the exhibition catalogue concludes with the ambitious statement that, “Exhibiting its rich and supple eloquence, pattern has been convincingly been rehabilitated, and we find art and craft reconciled, their old quarrel patched up.” This otherwise useful essay strays to dangerous conclusions with the suggestion that art and craft have finally laid down the cudgel. In my mind art and craft continue to face irreconcilable differences that we are all tired of thinking about. That said, Saunders’ observation that much of the work created for PURL bridges that divide and is unselfconscious in its use of fine art as well as craft is utterly valid. What may be a more realistic conclusion is that within select studies, such as the one offered by the premise of the PURL exhibition, taken up by artists less concerned with the boundaries between craft and art, work is being made that slips comfortably between the two disciplines. Progress, at last.

Surface Design Journal (summer 2005: 52-53)