Nicola Naismith

White Collar Worker by Nicola Naismith
Inkpen Downie Architecture and Design
35 North Hill, Colchester, CO1 1QR
November 21 – January 6, 2006

An exhibition based on the shape of one style of collar may not, at first, seem to offer much to go on. But Naismith bores deeply into this theme and uncovers the layers of meaning and innuendo that have accumulated around the collar. You do not need to be a textile enthusiast to understand the distinctions between “white collar” and “blue collar” – phrases that resonate throughout this exhibition. But Naismith takes the phrases well past the glib to question the value of manual versus intellectual labour, industrial versus hand production, and the configuration of the garments we wear to that of the buildings we inhabit. The exhibition is multi-disciplinary (drawings, prints, three dimensional objects and a collaborative work of virtual architecture presented in video form are all on display) but, in the final event, the pieces that included the most tangible references to textiles proved the most engaging.

On a physical level the collar provides an intriguing shape. Arranged as a multiple, it lends itself to various reincarnations. But layers of further meaning are also apparent, some teased out through the addition of mass produced objects such as clips, others alluded to through a slight of hand that makes these objects – at a glance – resemble architectural models. The neoprene Naismith has chosen is ideally suited for these morphing explorations: enough of a textile to record stitch marks and contain a material memory of its prior shapes; but also clean and clinical enough to suggest other prototypes clear in form but materially abstract. Neoprene is certainly not a material to record physical traces of the body beneath the collar: the sweat of mental or emotional anxiety, the toil of physical labour, the chaffing of close shaven skin against starched cloth. But the visceral is not the stuff of Naismith’s explorations. Instead this work is refreshing precisely because of the distance it assumes.

Three prints, “White Shirt”, “7 Collars” and “Pagoda” look, from a distance, to be sewn with black thread. Close inspection reveals that the “stitches” are in fact pixels of ink that confuse the eye. But it was the two three dimensional works in the back of the gallery that were the real treat of this exhibition: “Finger Collars” and “Pagoda.” Modest in scale, both are quite free in their use of sewing thread with dangling ends draped around the forms. But despite their miniature scale and assembly by hand sewing, both offer convincing references to models of architectural icons: “Finger Collars” a row of seven Sydney Opera Houses and “Pagoda” a Gaudi masterpiece. I found these sewn works of greater interest than the three in the gallery window, “Plait”, “Opera” and “Ring” all variations on a collar shape of identical size with added industrial elements. “Opera”, seven folded collars each clipped at the end and encircled by one large steel jubilee clip, seems to want provide references to both the industrial as well as an embroidery hoop, but the industrial reference overwhelms. “Ring” suggests a minimalist version of a grand Elizabethan ruff, but the metal clips were a distraction and I wondered, as the collars were sewn together anyway, if they were necessary for the structure of the work?

I suspect that Naismith’s collaboration with Graham Mack, a conceptual architecture animation, would have driven home the connections between her two and three dimensional work and architectural models for anyone still in doubt. But at the time I saw the piece the screen image on display was too small to read clearly. As with earlier works by this artist, there is a beguiling aesthetic at work that suggests not only the beauty to be found in textiles (most would already know that) but also the beauty to be found in industrial production. I left relieved rather than frustrated that the exhibition was mounted on such a modest scale. The constant shift between the micro and macro, industrial and hand, dress as architecture and architecture as dress makes not only for absorbing viewing but deserves considerable contemplation. The longer spent with these unassuming works the more they reveal.

Crafts Magazine (March/April 2006: 63-64)