Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer



Waterside Arts Centre, Manchester
May 20 – July 17, 2006

Curated by Lesley Sutton, this exhibition explores the notion of dress, proposing that: “by using the familiarity of ‘dress’ as a metaphor for relating underlying deeper issues associated with memory, life, death and personal narrative each artwork encourages us to listen and converse with others, the world and ourselves.” This broad remit is, perhaps inevitably, the exhibition’s weakness. For viewers familiar with explorations of dress in the textile art context, it is also frustrating to see that the bulk of the exhibition draws upon celebrated, but well-known, work. Certainly a theme-driven exhibition need not only address new work, but in this case the introduction of familiar work alongside the explorations of less well-known artists did not clarify or contribute to the thematic agenda of the exhibition.

In many ways, the work on display spoke of dress in such tangential ways that dress felt like more of an aside than the focus of the exhibition. Caroline Broadhead’s “Tunnel Dress”, a series of wire dress shapes hung in increasing size that project the shadow of a wobbly figure onto the wall suggests – on both emotional and physical levels – erasure and ambiguity. Shelly Goldsmith’s “Fragmented Bell: Reclaimed dress and knickers from the Children’s Home in Cincinnati” also explores notions of scale and fragility, but here Goldsmith asks the viewer to take a huge leap in connecting the child sized dress form acquired from a children’s orphanage and the pixelated disaster scene she has digitally printed onto the dress. Nearby, Jennifer Collier presented an elongated dress of uncanny proportions that towered above viewers, suggesting a theme that appears throughout the exhibition: unease and discomfort expressed through specifically female dress.

Jeannette Sendler’s haunting costumes from her “Chorus of Dead Souls” performance are the androgynous exception. Displayed like carcasses after slaughter these powerful works suggest, to my eyes, skin rather than dress, especially the ‘imprint’ the heat of the performers’ bodies has left on the felt’s memory. Interestingly, one of the few works to explore dress through positive associations was Julie Cassels looped videos that capture the innocent emotion of ‘joy’ through a waist-high image of what looks to be a young woman moving in idyllic settings, such as dancing with the sea’s surf. The fact that dress as a form that evokes pleasure or comfort was not a recurring theme throughout the work on display is an intriguing result of this exhibition and would have benefited from further commentary in the exhibition.

In her catalogue essay Dr. Jane Webb notes that the artists included, “do not want to represent something, but rather they utilise the inherent shifts and twists of thread itself to awaken meaning within us.” Webb’s observation throws into question both the central theme of dress and the exhibition’s title. In my mind, collecting together a group of work based on the form of the dress, without interrogating the definition of the dress is confusing. With the exception of Sendler’s androgynous forms, the shape of dress displayed here inevitably refers not to a human experience, but to female experience, but this distinction is not touched upon. Similarly, the exhibition title, “Threadbare” could, at a push, be understood as laying bare or exposing the threads of thought as well as textiles worn with use – but these connections would have benefited from clarification.

The Waterside Arts Centre provided an ample exhibition space, but failed to conceal is double life as a conference centre. The background music piped into the space was a distraction as were the temporary walls and lack of natural light. Broadhead’s “Tunnel Dress”, for instance, could be viewed from one angle, but the shadows it cast against a second wall opposite where distorted by seams and temporary partitions. The education initiatives established by Sutton in conjunction with this exhibition have undoubtedly contributed much to the local community. But overall it is a shame, when textile art exhibitions are already few and far between, to see an exhibition theme that is not explored in sufficient depth and relied upon key works that have already been widely exhibited elsewhere in Britain.

Crafts Magazine (Sept./Oct. 2006: 65-66)