What Do I Need to Do to Make It OK?

Pumphouse Gallery, Battersea Park, London (27 August - 1 November, 2015) Further venues: Crafts Study Centre, Farnham; Devon Guild of Craftsmen; Forty Hall; The National Centre for Craft & Design; and Rugby Art Gallery & Museum.

exhibition review Nov./Dec. 2015 Crafts Magazine pp. 64-65.

(home page image Celia Pym; image right Freddie Robins)

What Do I Need To Do To Make It OK?

How to make amends – physical or emotional – is a rich starting point for an exhibition theme. Here the phrase borrowed for the exhibition title is taken from a 2013 lecture given by the Canadian artist Dorothy Caldwell. The ambiguity of the reference is easier on the ear than the eye, but it has allowed curator Liz Cooper to draw on a number of disparate practices (Caldwell, Saidhbhín Gibson, Celia Pym, Freddie Robins, Karina Thompson) that aim to explore “damage and repair, disease and medicine, healing and restoration, to landscapes, bodies, minds and objects”.

Caldwell’s works suggest abstract landscapes recorded, repaired and mended. Their atmosphere is contemplative: muted colours assembled from materials that could have been harvest from the very landscapes and skies they capture. I am reminded of nature’s tireless and so often under-acknowledged cycle of regrowth. But the exhibition theme makes for schizophrenic musing. Caldwell’s approach, for example, could not be more different from Freddie Robins. Basket Case graces the exhibition announcement and greets viewers on the ground floor. Enjoying the dark humour that has long appeared in Robins’ practice, the sad knit face is suspended across a beaded net – a bit like a big red egg smashed by a gold net tennis racquet – memorialised on a pedestal of basketry.

But it is Robins’ disarmingly confessional I’m so Bloody Sad that made the most thought provoking response to the exhibition theme for me. Knit in grey with a lumpen block of a body and limbs extended with knitting needle tips, the figure’s head is thrown back, utterly incapable of looking forward. I’m so Bloody Sad stands out, ironically, because of its refusal to suggest recovery. Not mending, not repairing, and not saying that things can ever be made good again conveys an intensely private sentiment all will have felt at one point in life, but few share so explicitly.

In a similarly contrary way, Celia Pym’s wall of darned socks do not disguise the artificiality of their repair. Of the sixty socks exhibited, precious few are stitched in places familiar to wear and tear such as heels and toes. Instead a jolly cancer (if such an oxymoron can be uttered) seems to populate the entire wall. In contrast to the muted, natural aesthetic of Caldwell, Pym seems to relish a synthetic over-growth and over-repair.

What troubles this exhibition for me is that we are presented with representations of repair. Perhaps Pym comes closest when offering up the therapy of stitch during her Parallel Practices residency with Dr Richard Wingate and medical students working in the Dissecting Room of King’s College London (see Crafts issue no. 253, March/April 2015). And of course Caldwell’s almost eponymous contribution dwells on piecing and assembly. But these practices suffer from familiarity. Considering that this is an exhibition of makers, the collective message feels curiously fixed, both physically as objects as well as conceptually in response to an almost limitless topic. Rejections of recovery and representations of repair surely deserve to be placed alongside the actual act of “making it OK?” The alternative narrative would be that we can’t, which I don’t believe is the intention.

The first venue, the Pumphouse Gallery, is an eccentric space: four floors demand that the exhibition is sliced and separated. Cooper has astutely selected works with material relationships, separating examples of exhibiting artists across floors. In our cash poor times, the funding secured and panel of experienced advisors on hand for the development of this project are commendable. Arts Council England funding has allowed for new commissioned work by the five exhibiting artists. As more of the commissioned work emerges during the exhibition tour, the personality and relationships of the exhibition are bound to shift. But a greater diversity of voices from the outset may have shed more unexpected light on an exhibition theme so full of potential.