Threaded Stories

Threaded Stories
Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
November 29 – January 18, 2014

left: Mark Barrow YMCK, textile by Sarah Parke

The textile has become an increasingly familiar presence in fine art contexts. But this show quietly reminds us that artists creating work for the gallery have long worked with textiles. The difference may more accurately lie in the amount, or absence, of public recognition received.

Here six international artists – Tonico Lemos Auad, Mark Barrow, Greta Bratescu, Ruth Laskey, and the late Fred Sandback – are brought together in a grouping that spans generations, cultures and genres. As the exhibition blurb explains, “Presenting both historical and contemporary artists… offers insight into different generations of artists working across the traditions of Minimalism and domestic craft.”

The show opens quite literally with its back to the street. While nearby Bond Street store windows brim with bling, the gallery has installed a two black-on-black textiles by Tonico Lemos Auad in its windows. The pair, from 2013, contains ghostly suggestions of boat sails created through the removal of threads and face inwards, exposing their wooden frames to the street. Rather than catching the eye of passers by, the orientation privileges the viewer already inside the contemplative space of the gallery.

Nearby, Sheila Hicks’ square Study for Convergence, Hermes (1996), made of un-dyed linen, exemplifies what the artist refers to as her “unbiased weaves”. Close viewing of the interlaced skeins of natural linen reveals countless subtle variations in colour. On an adjacent wall, attention to detail appears again in Ruth Laskey’s disarmingly fine Twill Series (2009-2013) of simple geometric shapes hand woven using hand-dyed linen. The meticulous execution here is engrossing and deceptively complex to execute.

The front room has one more treasure in store: Mark Barrow’s forensically titled GRB1 from 2011 departs from the other three artists in the room not by choice of material – linen appears again – but in his means of constructing pattern. While Barrow’s name occupies the artist’s credit line, “textile by Sarah Parke” is also included after each work’s title and materials. Parke, Barrow’s wife, weaves patterned linen that he then paints to create ghostly geometries.

The result is a real optical game between the woven and surface pattern. In GRB1 this can be understood in part by the visible stretched and unpainted edges of the cloth. The pixelated patterns of Aboriginal paintings come to mind, but that is far from the only message on offer. While weaver as woman is an age-old stereotype, the weaver of a painter’s canvas is a rare credit line to offer. The gallery refers to the couple’s work as collaborative. While the placement of the weaver’s name does not exactly raise the textile, it does at least reject anonymity. And in fairness, these textiles become art thanks to the painted additions.

The front gallery space offers a difficult act to follow. Tucked behind it are further works from 2013 by Hicks and Auad, a series of framed collaged cloth studies by Greta Bratescu from 1978 and Reconstruction #13 from 1977 by Lucas Samaras. The latter, a large sewn wall piece, is the only work in the show that betrays its age by looking dated.

In the gallery space across the street two installations of the late Fred Sandback from 1974 and 1983 draw magical floating lines with acrylic thread in the corner of the gallery. Sanback’s works will be familiar to many, but the simplicity of a single fuzzy line of thread never fails to feel a little like magic. Also included in this space are further works by Barrow and Auad. The one disappointment here are several works framed behind glass that create a real barrier to seeing.

The gallery exhibition statement is quick to point out that the artists included all have interdisciplinary practices, which include “threaded material”. The subtext seems to say, “do not worry, none of what you are about to see strays into that distasteful territory of textile art.” In fairness this may be no bad thing. More exhibitions conceived and exhibited with the stunning attention to material and conceptual detail on display here would surely change public perception of textiles once and for all.

Selvedge magazine issue 56 Jan./Feb. 2014, pp. 92-93.