[Review] Sticking Ground, One Thoresby Street — Josh Mcloughlin

Sticking Ground, One Thoresby Street, Attic Gallery, Nottingham (February 2022)

One of the most vital currents in contemporary art is the resurgence in the use of textile and fabric, grounded in traditional craft methods such as weaving, quilting, felting, darning, sewing and patchworking. Overlooked and undervalued as ‘women’s work’, textiles have for centuries been viewed as a ‘domestic’ form on the grounds of supposed ‘femininity’ or an artisanal mode relegated from the domain of ‘fine’ art due to an association with clothing, soft furnishings, and other functional and decorative uses.  

But the last decade or so has witnessed a powerful renewal of interest in craft processes. Scholars and historians such as Elissa Auther, Roszika Parker and Clare Hunter have demonstrated the enduring importance of textiles to human culture, communication and society from pre-history to the present.[1] Curators are re-discovering or re-emphasising a neglected tradition of fabric production from Anglo-Saxon embroidery through to Anni Albers’s Bauhaus weaving and the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers.[2] And contemporary artists have been rehabilitating previously denigrated materials and methods to place textiles at the forefront of contemporary art practice.[3] 

Sticking Ground, a trio exhibition with Hannah Dinsdale, Sophie Giller and Sophie Goodchild at One Thoresby Street, Nottingham, expresses this shift but refuses to be confined by a modish or affectatious use of fabric. Instead, it challenges the hierarchy structuring our conventional understanding of the materials and contexts of the production and reception of art and craft–or what Amber Butchard has called the ‘artificial divide between fine art and textiles’.[4] In doing so, Sticking Ground firmly pushes the bounds of ‘soft’ sculptural forms beyond a fashionable opposition to the traditional plastic arts, whilst interrogating the conceptual, institutional, and gendered ideologies that underpin assumptions of the superiority of the so-called ‘fine arts’ of painting and sculpture over those deemed ‘decorative’, ‘applied’ or pejoratively as ‘crafts’.

All three artists are recent graduates of the Royal College of Art, London. Despite—or perhaps because of—taking their MAs in Sculpture (Dinsdale and Giller) and Painting (Goodchild), these artists are creating works that disavow the strict disciplinary boundaries on which canonical art institutions are modelled. Instead, they combine ‘craft’ materials, techniques and processes with sophisticated historical perspectives and nuanced conceptualisation. The result is a fresh, challenging and exciting approach that borrows elements from painterly, sculptural, and installation-based practices whilst elevating textile work to new levels of complexity and critical depth.

A new edition of Anni Albers’s field-defining 1965 book On Weaving was published to acclaim by Princeton University Press in 2017, and was followed by a celebrated exhibition of Albers’s work at the Tate Modern, London (October 2018–January 2019), the first major show of the Bauhaus textile artist in the UK.[5] Albers reminds us that, long before written records, ‘threads were among the earliest transmitters of meaning’.[6] From Predynastic Egypt (c. 3700 BCE) through to Archaic Greece (c.750–480 BC) and Middle Horizon Peru (600–1000 AD) the fabric arts were important enough to be represented on pottery, vases and other key cultural objects, both functional and material.[7] Albers thus demonstrates the centrality of textile production to the economies, psychologies, identities, and cultures of the earliest civilizations.

Detail of Sophie Goodchild, Volcano, Crucible, Arena: Rubbing feet in the salt lava

Sticking Ground gathers these threads and connects them with the artists’ research into sensory awareness, embodiment, craft, and the processes of making. ‘Through sculpture, sound, textiles, and installation’, the exhibition text says, ‘the works are grounded in systems of connectivity and circadian rhythms: circuits, sounds, pathways, structures, circles, and loops that move between, interlock and weave through textures, materials and forms’. There is a keen awareness of how textiles connect, communicate and structure human experience, but also how fabric is a vivid means of aesthetic expression, rich with meaning when ‘dyed, felted, and hand- and machine-sewn to create new soft combinations of materials and networks’. The exhibition’s focus on tactility—in the process of making but also in experience broadly conceived—draws on a quote from Albers printed on the reverse of the accompanying text:

We touch things to assure ourselves of reality. We touch the objects of our love. We touch the things we form. Our tactile experiences are elemental. If we reduce their range, as we do when we reduce the necessity to form things ourselves, we grow lopsided.[8]

It is worth noting the connection here with Michael Serres’s Les Cinq Sens (1985). Serres, like Albers, sees ‘tactile experiences [as] elemental’, and he employs a range of textile metaphors to forge a new theory of empiricism. In Serres’s ‘philosophy of the senses’, fabric and skin—already an intimate relation—become conceptually interwoven, enabling us to ‘Observe on the surface of the skin, the changing, shimmering, fleeting soul, the blazing, striated, tinted, streaked, striped, many-coloured, mottled, cloudy, starstudded, bedizened, variegated, torrential, swirling soul’.[9]

Hannah Dinsdale, Thoughts Outside the Head

Thoughts Outside the Head by Hannah Dinsdale enacts Serres’s sensual ‘mingling’ of body, fabric and world, inviting spectators to become participants by sitting or lying down on a large, hand-made beanbag occupying the centre of the gallery floor. Dinsdale has appliquéd loops onto the surface, resembling neurological diagrams or neural pathways that connect skin and body to brain and mind. Inside each loop, a sensor translates body pressure into a trigger that modifies ASMR recordings of a cat purr and tapping sounds—the first encounter as you walk in the room—playing from nearby monitors. As I sank into the beanbag, I felt a sort of weightlessness; and my body itself became a conductor of the sounds circulating around the space. The piece acts as a horizontal viewing platform for the other works installed up above on the walls and rafters of the attic, lending scale and monumentality to the experience.

Detail of Hannah Dinsdale, Thoughts Outside the Head

Dinsdale’s work is sensory and affective: touch, sound, and the physical experience of the work are as important as the rich, deep hand-dyed finish of the beanbag. The sensors within the beanbag respond to the shape and movement of the body, demonstrating how, as Albers says, ‘we touch the things we form’. The ‘new soft combinations of materials and networks’ Sticking Ground seeks to engender are made possible by Dinsdale’s careful attention to the reciprocity between textiles and the body, between art and the spectator-turned-participant.

Foreground: Hannah Dinsdale, Thoughts Outside the Head; background: Sophie Giller, For Thoresby, for members

Sophie Giller’s For Thoresby, for artists and For Thoresby, for members, comprises two hand-made quilts installed on curved rails that acts as a curtain through which you enter the exhibition. The quilts commemorate the importance of One Thoresby Street to the city of Nottingham and 110+ member artists who have nurtured and cared for the building. Giller has printed their names upon a patchwork of salvaged linens, producing a form of archival memorialsation that connects and contextualises people and place. The reverse of the members’ quilt depicts the windows and peachy painted brick at the back of the building, whilst the artists’ quilt represents the front of the building with its iconic stair tower; patchwork flourishes of blue reference the crumbling paintwork in the attic and the handrails on the stairs.

Sophie Giller, For Thoresby, for members (left) and For Thoresby, for artists (right)

Giller, a New Contemporaries studio holder at One Thoresby Street in 2016–17, channels a personal connection to the building and its members whilst tapping into the history of textile commemoration, both abstract and representational. She engages with Albers’s affective understanding of textiles as ‘the objects of our love’ as well as the history of textile memorialisation exemplified, for example, the banners of twentieth-century British and Irish labour movements.[10] Lying on Dinsdale’s beanbag, looking up at the members’ names on one quilt and the building on the other is incredibly moving in the context of the uncertain future of One Thoresby Street.

Detail: Sophie Giller, For Thoresby, for members

As Paul Paschal has recently noted, these artist-led studios have played a vital role in supporting ‘a diversity of practices – with different economies, values, and processes’ in Nottingham since the E28 building of the old Boots Island site was taken over by NTU art graduates in 2008 (and now sadly threatened with closure).[11] Indeed, it is hard to think of a more apt venue for this exhibition. Not only was the building itself once used for the production of lace, the East Midlands region more generally occupies a central place in the history of textile design and manufacture. The global trade in lace and framework knitting, as Sheila Mason notes, radiated out from the counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire from the 1760s.[12] The city of Nottingham itself was the ‘world centre’ and ‘focal point’ of the industry: ‘the cauldron from which ideas and exports were disseminated worldwide’ until the mid-twentieth century.[13] Yet, the region has a much longer history of textiles production, dating back at least to the early medieval period, when textiles and especially cloth were ‘the most important manufactured product in the medieval world’.[14]

Foreground: Sophie Giller, For Thoresby, for artists (left), For Thoresby, for members (right); background: Hannah Dinsdale, Thoughts Outside the Head

Sticking Ground localises and historicizes the importance of textiles within a city and a region that have enduring ties to these materials and processes. In this way, the show constitutes a sophisticated intervention in the discourse around textiles in contemporary art. This is no glib invocation of the medium for the sake of a passing trend but a deep and complex engagement with the history and continuing importance of the textile forms and techniques.

Volcano, Crucible, Arena: Rubbing feet in the salt lava by Sophie Goodchild is a large, wall-hung tapestry-like work referencing thew ‘otherworldly and fantastical aesthetics and structures of natural phenomena and the predictable unpredictability of the never-ending, overarching cycle of everyday experience’. The work is made up of several layers: a hand-felted outer mesh on top of jacquard weaves made of lambswool that is digitally printed with aerial photographs of live volcanoes. This combination reflects ‘a digitised, pixelated landscape heavily embodied and informed through the history and traditions of textile craft’. The phases of the moon, an arrangement dominating the top third of the work, connects the circular, handcrafted portals to the cycles of the natural world.

Sophie Goodchild, Volcano, Crucible, Arena: Rubbing feet in the salt lava

This imposing, monumental piece, with its nod to myth and ‘fantastical aesthetics’, is reminiscent of the tradition of medieval and early modern European tapestry, such as the vivid and enigmatic The Unicorn in Captivity from the The Hunt of the Unicorn series (c.1495–1505 and now in The Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Goodchild’s work challenges the eye with its intense colours, fine detail, and mix of figuration and abstraction, whilst emphasising the therapeutic and ritualistic repetitions and layerings of textile production. The composition demonstrates Goodchild’s control of painterly forms— her MA at the Royal College was in Painting—yet probes the traditional separation of the ‘fine art’ of painting from the craft of feltmaking by combining an eclectic mix of materials including lambswool, bronze, alabaster, silicone, cotton, and dyes. Beneath the felted net surface lies a layer of machine-knitted forms arranged like painterly gestures on a canvas. Fringing the base of the work are tassels casted in silicon that resemble jellyfish: floating, translucent, and with trailing fibres encased within.

Detail: Sophie Goodchild, Volcano, Crucible, Arena: Rubbing feet in the salt lava

There is a strong emphasis on the connection between nature and culture here. It all feels as if you are transported to a watery landscape under a presiding moon, dotted by the markings of some exotic creature or overlaid with kaleidoscopic abstractions that recall the pixelations of the digital sphere or a city at night. The work’s mix of handmade natural textures, layered imagery, and saturated fragments of intense colour cut across the natural and the social. In this way, Goodchild emphasises Albers’s call to ‘form things ourselves’ and echoes Serres joyful dictum that ‘I mix with the world which mixes with me’.[15]

Detail: Sophie Goodchild, Volcano, Crucible, Arena: Rubbing feet in the salt lava

In her book The Subversive Stitch (2010), Rozsika Parkersays that ‘the art/craft hierarchy suggests that art made with thread and art made with paint are intrinsically unequal’. Yet whilst ‘the division of art forms into a hierarchical classification of arts and crafts is usually ascribed to factors of class […] separating artist from artisan’, Parker points out that ‘the development of an ideology of femininity coincided historically with the emergence of a clearly defined separation of art and craft’, and so this ‘artificial division’ is heavily inflected by ideologies of gender.[16] 

Sticking Ground demonstrates an astute awareness of the politics and gender of aesthetic form by showcasing three female artists working across disciplinary boundaries. Encompassing sculpture, sound, textiles, expanded painting, Dinsdale, Giller and Goodchild’s work broadens and multiplies established horizons of materiality and form and contributes to an enriched understanding of the history and problematics of the ‘art/craft’ hierarchy.

Foreground: Hannah Dinsdale, Thoughts Outside the Head; background: Sophie Goodchild, Volcano, Crucible, Arena: Rubbing feet in the salt lava

Jenelle Porter, curator of Fiber: Sculpture 1960–Present at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (October 1 2014 – Jan 4 2015), argues in her introduction to Vitamin T: Threads and Textiles in Contemporary Art (2019), that today’s ‘fibre art’ is heir to the legacy of a ‘pioneering group of artists who emerged during the 1960s and 1970s’.[17] Yet this is a narrow view that ignores the much longer history of textile art with which Sticking Ground engages. In late medieval England, for example, the fine needlework known as Opus Anglicanum—produced by both men and women—was celebrated across Europe as a fine art of dignity, luxury, and style that was central to royal fashion, diplomacy and the production of sacred liturgical vestments.[18]

It was only during the Renaissance that the ‘divide […] between fine art and textiles’ began to solidify. In 1770, the Council of the Royal Academy (founded in 1768) ‘Resolved That no Needle-Work, artificial Flowers, cut Papers, Shell-work, or any such Baubles shall be admitted into the Exhibition’. The derisory term ‘bauble’ signifies the contempt of the male art establishment since then for these so-called ‘feminine crafts’.[19]

The triumph of Sticking Ground is not simply in challenging this history. Dinsdale, Giller, and Goodchild’s work is an especially important contribution to contemporary art because it collides the traditional methods and materials of ‘craft’ production with canonical forms of fine art to produce a substantially original take on the ‘art/craft hierarchy’. This show powerfully re-connects us with the materials, places, and networks that constitute and bind aesthetic and social experience, and reminds us of the enduring importance and continuing vitality of textiles in contemporary art.

Sophie Giller, For Thoresby, for artists (left), For Thoresby, for members (right)

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Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside. He is the editor-in-chief of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize (2019) and the International Awards for Art Criticism (2020). He writes for The Times, The London Magazine, The Spectator, Engelsberg Ideas, The Fence, and others.


Notes

[1] Elissa Auther, String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010); Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (London: Bloomsbury, 2010); Clare Hunter, Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle (New York: Abrams, 2019). See also: Gwen Blakley Kinsler, The Fine Art of Crochet (Bloomingtom, IA: AuthorHouse, 2013); Jenelle Porter, ed. Fiber: Sculpture 1960–Present (New York: Prestel, 2014); Anni Albers, On Weaving, New Expanded Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017); G. E. Cotton and M. Junet, Tapestry to Fiber Art: The Lausanne Biennials 1962–1995 (Milan: Skira, 2017).

[2] For example: Fiber: Sculpture 1960–present, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (October 1 2014 – Jan 4 2015); Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery, Victoria & Albert Museum, London (1 October 2016–5 February 2017); Anni Albers, Tate Modern, London (11 October 2018–27 January 2019); The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers, Alison Jacques Gallery, London (2 December 2020–25 April 2021); Cultures of Cloth in the Medieval East Midlands, Lakeside Arts, Nottingham (16 September–20 February 2022).

[3] Lousia Elderton and Rebecca Morrill, eds. Vitamin T: Threads and Textiles in Contemporary Art (London and New York: Phaidon, 2019).

[4] Amber Butchart, ‘The Artificial Divide Between Fine Art and Textiles is a Gendered Issue’, Frieze, 14 Nov 2018 <https://www.frieze.com/article/artificial-divide-between-fine-art-and-textiles-gendered-issue> [accessed 5 March 2022]

[5] Sophie Pitman, ‘Review: On Weaving, New Expanded Edition’, West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History & Material Culture, 25:1 (2018), 112–114; See also: Nicholas Fox Weber, The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press 2011), 341–415.

[6] Albers, On Weaving, 50.

[7] Albers, On Weaving, plates 1 and 3.

[8] Albers, On Weaving, 44.

[9] Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, trans. Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley (London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2016); See also: Jane Théau, ‘Inciting the Site of the Soul: Skin, Touch and Textiles in Contemporary Art’, unpublished PhD dissertation (The Australian National University, 2021).

[10] See for example, David Wray, ‘The Place of Imagery in the Transmission of Culture: The Banners of the Durham Coalfield’, International Labor and Working-Class History, 76 (2009), 147–163; John Gorman, Banner Bright: An Illustrated History of the Banners of the British Trade Union Movement (London: Allen Lane, 1973).

[11] Paul Paschal, ‘[Review] One Thoresby Street, Late Harvest, 2 October 2021’, New Critique (Oct 2021) <https://newcritique.co.uk/2021/12/16/review-one-thoresby-street-late-harvest-2-october-2021-paul-paschal/> [accessed 5 March 2022].

[12] Sheila A. Mason, Nottingham Lace: 1760s–1950s (Belper, Derbyshire: S.A Mason for Cluny Lace, 1994), xv, 190–91 and passim.

[13] Mason, Nottingham Lace, 190.

[14] Chris King, ‘Cultures of Cloth in the Medieval East Midlands’, Lakeside Arts, Nottingham, 26 October 2021, part of Cultures of Cloth in the Medieval East Midlands, Lakeside Arts, Nottingham (16 September–20 February 2022).

[15] Serres, The Five Senses, 80.

[16] Parker, The Subversive Stitch, 5; Butchart, ‘The Artificial Divide Between Fine Art and Textiles’.

[17] Jenelle Porter, ‘Introduction’ in, Vitamin T: Threads and Textiles in Contemporary Art, 10.

[18] See Leanne C. Tonkin, ‘Insights into the Production of Opus Anglicanum: An Object Analysis of Two Panels from the Pillar Orphreys on the Whalley Abbey Altar Frontal’, Textile History, 43:1, 83-89.

[19] Royal Academy Archives, CM I, 76–6. See also: Isabelle Baudino, ‘Difficult beginning? The early years of the Royal Academy of Arts in London’, Études anglaises 2013/2 66:2 (2013), 181–194, 190.