Published in The Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, No. 225, March 2008, Textile Fibre Forum, Issue 4, no.92, 2008, 'Tapestry Topics' (American Tapestry Alliance) 2008


BSW Gallery, 29 Bartholomew Street West, Exeter, Devon, UK
10-31 May, 2008


Woven tapestry is often described as a medium that 'enriches space'. The intensity of skill and thought that goes into each work communicates itself to the viewer, consciously or unconsciously. This is true whether the work is large or small-scale. As well as being a rich and resonant medium, tapestry is also supremely portable; the exhibition of work by four artists based in Melbourne, Australia in Exeter, Devon, is testimony to this.

The BSW Gallery is a new venture in improving the visibility of woven tapestry as an art form. While tapestry is often included in mixed exhibitions, this is currently the only gallery in the UK which provides an opportunity to focus on this medium alone.
Contemporary tapestry, historically used to adorn high walls in churches, palaces or state buildings, is now also bought or commissioned by private individuals, often on a domestic scale for their own homes. The BSW Gallery is located in a space that elegantly navigates the line between these public and private spaces, showing large, miniature and three dimensional works in a restored Georgian merchant's house. The gallery rooms are welcoming, with high ceilings and graceful proportions. Large-scale tapestries have room to breathe, and small works beckon the viewer closer.

The artists represented in '4 Australian Tapestry Weavers' are interlinked, all based in Melbourne, and having worked at the prestigious Victorian Tapestry Workshop.
Most of the work in the show is miniature, the most feasible strategy for exhibition on the other side of the world; but it is intense and potent nonetheless. Portability doesn't compromise quality. The vibrancy of colour, as held in yarn, and the sheer evidence of time spent and skill exercised mean that each tapestry is a small world.

All the works shown are woven tapestries, with the exception of one on paper by Sara Lindsay. Entitled 'Trade: China Spice', it is a sequence of deckled paper rectangles, striped with mapping pens. Referencing stripes in woven cloth, it has resonances of Agnes Martin and Ben Nicolson, and provides evidence that medium matters less than the intention of the artist. It fits perfectly with the vision demonstrated in her four small, quietly insistent tapestries hung on the adjacent wall. Each of these pieces comprises a narrow horizontal strip of delicately-striped tapestry above a tightly-aligned row of pieces of rolled cinnamon bark forming strong, vertical lines. As well as echoes of trade and colonialism, the rhythm of the warp in tapestry is made explicit in the regularity of these organic shapes.

Joy Smith is well-known in the tapestry world for the wit and richness of her small-scale, jewel-like tapestries. Here, three works entitled 'This Goes with That', inspired by earrings, shoes and clothing found in charity shops, exhibit her extraordinary attention to detail in everyday things. The contrast-stitching depicted on tiny blue jeans and shoes is meticulous and perfect, and the beaded earrings are truly 'beady', rendered in individual picks of weft. There is a sense of the artist exploring these ordinary objects with loving attention.

The two tapestries entitled 'West Dean Topiary: Summer' and '…Autumn' are a humorous take on the effort and perseverance required to shape growing shrubs into that peculiar European art form, topiary. The artist may be drawing a parallel with making exquisitely fine woven tapestries; in any case, the medium seems appropriate to the message.

Robyn Mountcastle's main contribution is a series of fourteen miniature works. 'Via Dolorosa' lies within the ancient tradition of woven tapestry in ecclesiastical decoration. The series depicts the 'Stations of the Cross', more usually seen carved in stone on the walls of churches or cathedrals. The intense emotion of the theme draws the viewer into each of these tiny tapestry worlds. One finds oneself trying to read the symbolism of the abstract shapes caught in the warp and weft of each surface.

Tim Gresham's work shows the influence of his other medium, photography. The tapestries included in this exhibition hold resonances of Modernist architecture, focussing on abstract rhythms and patterns-within-patterns, executed in a palette reminiscent of concrete and modern building materials. These works defy the usual convention that tapestry is richly seductive, jewel-like and approachable in colour; however, on closer inspection of his works, the eye is rewarded with rich, optical colour-blending, creating both harmony and dissonance.

The four Australian artists in this exhibition are skilled weavers. Through their chosen medium their voices and intentions speak clearly in the gallery space. The exhibition has balance and rhythm, representing the strength of woven tapestry, this portable and potent art form, in a world-wide context.


Anne Jackson