Rowena Dring: A Question of Perception

Rowena Dring

Rowena Dring depicts a world tidied up, neatly divided into manageable sections. But it would be dangerous to assume that just because the world has been broken down into bite-sized bits, we understand quite what we are seeing. For one thing, Dring’s work is just the sort that confuses the camera. Even when seen in person, the appliqué she uses to construct these large-scale images is not really what the work is about. From a distance these works cleverly masquerade as something other than fabric. Materials are only revealed on close inspection. Ironically, at the same distance that the eye understands what makes up these large scale works, their imperfections are also revealed: a tiny sliver of one fabric colour overlaps another and frayed threads peak from beneath a seam. Rather than craft, Dring cites the French literary critic Roland Barthes as important to the development of this work.

In “Death of the Author” Barthes famously proposed that our ‘reading’ of a text or work of art should not be mudded by any knowledge we may have of the creator and their identity. Since the essay’s publication in 1967, Dring senses that rather than disinterest, we have in fact become increasingly obsessed with the maker behind the work. Authorship, she explains, is key to her work. Paint-by-numbers and camouflage also spring to mind. These two seemingly disparate references are joined by their ability to erase, rather than express, individual identity. Paint-by-numbers projects are not about creativity; they are about passively assembling order. Similarly, camouflage seeks to make the wearer indistinguishable from their environment, as eye catching and interesting as a nearby tree or bush. Dring seems to be questioning this logic when she takes her own photographs and drawings and painstakingly translates them into large-scale textiles. The images that result are broken down into flat sections of colour with a palette that is often limited, at times even monochrome. Ironically, by removing detail the world in fact becomes far more, rather than less, interesting.

Fabric is important, but it is not the point of these works. Instead at the heart of Dring’s process is not a desire to experiment with materials, but to draw. With the help of Photoshop, drawings and photographs are scanned into the computer and “colour magnified, blown up and saturated.” Working from templates she then begins to assemble her giant patchworks of colour and shape. The investment of computer and then construction time is considerable. But in spite of the time invested in each work, Dring is far from a Luddite. “I’ve always worked with computers,” she explains. “I am interested in digital media. But I want to create real objects, so I move between analogue and digital.” The computer is apparent in these works, but so too is the maker’s hand. This tension is an approach increasingly evident in the work of a generation of artists like Dring who have no reason to dislike technology, but can see its function as a tool within a broader agenda that increasingly values hand construction.

These textiles seem to suggest, and at the same time mock, the simulacra of life we so often accept as real today. The manmade and the natural are handled in the same way and as a result, merge. Figures make rare appearances. And as the work has become increasingly more complicated and densely worked in recent years, the transitions between shapes and colours feel quicker and tighter. Themes of home, identity and environment appear again and again in scenes of stunning natural beauty, but also banal suburban settings. Born in Britain and based in Amsterdam since 2001, Dring admits to “feeling a sense of displacement everywhere.” This neither here nor there attitude may explain why these works can feel both specific and generic at the same time. It is as though Dring is assembling a giant puzzle or map; from pieces she has cut herself.

The scale of these works dictates that no more than ten to twelve are completed each year. “Satisfaction,” she explains, “comes from seeing each phase of the work complete.” Again, I think of a puzzle, with the pleasure of locking in a corner, boarders, a cloud in the sky or edge of a wall. Dring works in layers rather than blocks, but both ways of seeing seem to rely on the satisfaction earned when things fall into place. Reflections on water are something of a trademark and in recent works such as Ruegens Rocks (2005) there is a tension between densely worked and bare areas of cloth. “I’m always looking to build rhythm with colours across foreground and background,” she explains. In the monochrome “Bed” (2005) landscapes and far more intimate domestic spaces elide, in this case with the towering peaks of sheets suggesting the ridges and valleys of a mountain range.

In her 2002 review of Dring’s solo exhibition at the Elizabeth Dee gallery in New York City, art critic Martha Schwendener observes: “By stitching together the worlds of textile and painting, Dring cleverly forces fabric into the realm of ‘high art’ and dares us to think otherwise. Playing with visual associations ranging from paint-by-numbers, cartoons, and camouflage to traditional painting, she collapses form and subject matter, canvas and textiles, and she trumps the contentious realms of representation labelled by such terms as figuration, abstraction, pattern, and decoration.” The components of a textile are apparent in her attention to rhythm and pattern particularly. But it is important to note that these works are stretched on a frame, displayed on the spare white walls of the art gallery with little reference to the domestic space.

This makes sense too, when you consider Dring’s background. After the rather unhelpful advice of a tutor on her Foundation course (“I could do textiles or painting, but not both”) Dring dismissed encouragement to pursue textiles and studied painting at Chelsea (BA) then later Goldsmiths (MA). But, she explains, “there remained this urge to make.” Stumbling across Van Gough’s box of tapestry wools in the Van Gough Museum in Amsterdam, she came to realize “how similar the wool was to paint.” Perhaps more importantly she also saw “how similar Van Gough’s painting technique was to the long stitch in tapestry” and returned to the materials of her childhood with the idea that fabric could be her paint. Despite being short listed for the 2002 Jerwood Applied Arts Prize in Textiles, it seems that it is an engagement with recent concerns about the maker and the quest for authenticity that have led Dring and many others from a Fine Art background to textiles. Each work takes ages to make, but Dring does not work alone and production is a necessity rather than a curiosity in its own right. In the final even these works are deceptively commanding. Authenticity, Dring seem to suggest, lies in the eye of the beholder.

Embroidery magazine (May/June 2007: 26-31)

image: Rowena Dring "Nha Trang lilly pond" (2007)