Woven Tapestries by
BSW Gallery, Exeter, Devon, U.K.
6-21 September 2008
Published in: American Tapestry Alliance 'Tapestry Topics' Spring 2009 Vol 35 No 1, Canadian Tapestry Network Newsletter, Winter 2008/9
Four leading British tapestry artists recently exhibited at the BSW Gallery, Exeter. They represented a cross-section of professional practice in the UK. All four are experienced international exhibitors, executing major commissions and installations as far away as Japan. The 'Different Perspectives' of the exhibition title concerned the interpretations they bring to bear on their experiences of the human-made world and the natural environment.
Fiona Rutherford's tapestries, influenced by Japanese textiles, displayed a mastery of colour and design
that made them almost dance off the walls. For example, in 'Present Past', a fine mauve stripe moved across a field of bright aqua, and another of almost industrial sea-green, with optical effect
akin to a Bridget Riley painting.
Due to its historical evolution as a pictorial art form, there is often an assumption that a tapestry has a 'right way up', and is to be hung like a picture. Many of Fiona Rutherford's pieces could be hung vertically or horizontally according to taste, as the composition was not intended to be read pictorially. On some level, this conveyed a lightheartedness and ease that were part of the works' appeal.
Jilly Edwards' mixed-media series consisted of rolled tapestry fragments in small perspex display units, along with ephemera such as embroidered train tickets. Each piece could have its elements rearranged, capturing a sense of the non-linearity of remembered experience. She also exhibited a series of tiny, intensely-coloured abstract tapestries, each in a spacious frame, like a precious fragment of memory from a visual diary.
In Fiona Hutchison's two large-scale works, she dematerialised the conventional rectangular plane of
tapestry into airy vertical strips. Clouds of pale, added filaments floated before them, appearing to be uncontrolled, but individually painted, treated and placed with painstaking care, giving
an effect of flying sea-foam.
All her works expressed her love of the sea and sailing, including several small framed pieces where the quiet fineness of the weaving suggested calm water, reflections, or harbour elements. The scale and delicacy of these works invited close looking, while paradoxically evoking the vastness of the uncontrollable sea.
Fiona Mathison's work subverted the traditional structures and materials used to construct woven tapestry. She showed a pair of slender, cylindrical forms, curving from floor to ceiling, evocative of birch trunks in a wood, whose construction included furnishing fabric and monofilament wrapping. Small freestanding shadow boxes were related to her site-specific work in the gallery courtyard, a tall, bright, tree trunk-like form, reminiscent of the work of Nikki de St Phalle in its colour and humour. Entitled 'Mixed Fruits', it was woven of monofilament and long strips cut from fruit juice cartons. The effect was of flowing patterns, bark and cellular structures, as the freestanding tapestry form moved gently in the wind, changing with time and weather.
This show represented a synthesis of four very different approaches to tapestry weaving. It was carefully hung in the semi-domestic scale of the gallery space, so that each artist's work could speak clearly and be heard. The four perspectives on the world and weaving were united as a harmonious whole, a fitting achievement for a contemporary tapestry gallery; as creating coherence from diverse strands and materials is the technical heart of the weaver's art.
Tapestry is often unrecognised in contemporary culture. Judging by recent national press coverage,
several professional arts journalists clearly have no idea that tapestry lives and thrives as a contemporary art form in the UK.
Exhibitions like this one make an important contribution to the rectification of this situation.