Thursday, 30 April 2015

The sexy stitch

Somehow I seem to have made a rather explicitly sexy quilt without really trying. 

Synapse (detail). 

True, the image taken from Botticelli's Birth of Venus was chosen because I have long considered it the epitome of sexiness, and then I added some hibiscus which, as I have remarked in the past, are blatantly pollinated with testosterone, plus some canna lilies, ditto. And then I added an orchid which, since Georgia O'Keeffe painted them in huge close-up (below) have been impossible to look at without blushing. But when I had bonded it all down irrevocably I saw that the end result was rather more explicit than I had intended. (This is a detail of a much larger quilt, Synapse, which will be at the Prism exhibition Lines of Communication, in Hoxton, east London, May 20- 31. Details at

Quilts in general don't do sexiness, despite countless thousands of people having been conceived beneath one. Together with embroidery, they have a proud history of women's lib feminism and consciousness raising - see the classic book The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker - exploring subjects such as menstruation and childbirth and, iconically and beautifully in Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party of 1979, female genitalia. But that's not the same thing at all. 

Notable exceptions occur in erotic images by male embroiderers such as James Hunting. But do a Google image search of "sexy quilt" and you will be totally untitivated. The always excitingly different  Alexander Henry Fabrics (in the UK from Fancy Moon) may do a range of quilting fabrics featuring 50s-style pinups and hunky cowboys and firemen stripped to the waist, but these are as humorous as they are erotic.

....and there are those hibiscus again

And laughter seems often to be the default reaction.
I recall at the Festival of Quilts a decade or so ago standing before a large quilt that depicted two full-fronted naked figures in a lush garden without fig leaves but holding an owl (no, I don't know why either). It had, predictably, been banned from exhibition in America, but in Brum it was met by giggles.

The American quilter Jan Myers-Newbury, well-known for her innovative tie-dye and Shibori techniques, also came up against the censors, although was baffled as to why a particular quilt she had submitted for a show had been vetoed. Later, telling the story to an audience at the V&A, she put up a slide of the totally inoffensive abstract block quilt and told how she had phoned up the organisers for an explanation, to be informed that it was because of the, ahem, "female parts". The audience was equally puzzled. Then she showed a detail. There was a moment's silence, a collective intake of breath then gales of laughter. There, formed by the dye marks in a border fabric, was a huge, graphic depiction of a "part" usually seen only in hard porn and medical textbooks.

Perhaps the sexiness of quilts is best appreciated in a snuggly, lights-out bedroom context. And who could complain about that.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Winning the "Time Out" lucky dip

Geoffrey Pimlott, The Shape of Colour, at the Royal Watercolour Society spring exhibition
(apologies for light reflection and poor quality - the original was fab)

The rules are simple: take an issue of Time Out, open a page at random, then stab your finger somewhere on it without looking. Then you have to go to whatever gig/club/play/event/restaurant/exhibition it is that you have chanced upon. The first time I played this game, straight after reading about it in Time Out itself, my finger landed on a perfectly respectable mainstream film. But I didn't go.

This past week, with a sudden urge to get out of the house and a four-hour window in which to do so, I decided to give it another whirl. I ended up on page 63 and Cake International at the ExCel Centre: "For the growing community of Londoners who choose to express themselves through the medium of cake, this three-day event..." Aware that this might have been a pivotal life-changing moment, but not having three days to spare, I shortened the odds by confining myself to a single page of the Art listings.

Which is how I found myself on the deck of HMS Belfast in the rain.

Hew Locke "art intervention" aboard HMS Belfast

To be fair, it was not just for the ship itself, which I have resisted visiting for all the decades I have been in London - my dear, it's so dreadfully grey - but for an "art intervention" by Hew Locke, whose kitsch, surreal, disturbing but highly decorative work I have admired for years. The ironically titled The Tourists (until Sept 7, £16 for admission to ship) imagines the former Royal Navy cruiser arriving in Trinidad in 1962 in time for Carnival, with the crew - the mannequins of sailors that are a part of the normal display - wearing appropriate costume. It took me ten minutes to come across my first figure, above, but the effect was startling.

Sailors dress up for the Trinidad Carnival

The concept was admirable: the imagining of an "alternative history", exploring ideas of Cold War change and uncertainty, global power relationships, visible symbols of superiority, and colonialism.  But in such a vast, imposing ship both participants suffered. The art was diluted and compromised and HMS Belfast lost a bit of its dignity. The general visitors, many of them foreign, were bemused and irritated. "It's not fair," I overheard one complain. "The kids want to see the figures properly." Bravo to the Imperial War Museum for commissioning the piece; bravo to Locke for rising to the challenge. But I don't think it was never going to work.

And so to my second lucky dip: Sally Smart: The Choreography of Cutting (Purdy Hicks gallery, until April 25): Not, as I had feared, an exploration of FGM, but "Collages of female figures inspired by the dancer Martha Graham's involvement in Aaron Copland's 1944 production of Appalachian Spring". Even so, not really my thing. But rules, even bent ones, are rules, and away I went.


Sally Smart: The Choreography of Cutting

London can drain you physically, but it is also capable of injecting a shot of pure adrenaline straight into the brain. The large, raw collages of paper, paint, print and fabric - canvas, gingham, velvet, even free machine embroidery - with some of the pieces pinned straight on to the wall, left me breathless with their swirling energy.

Machine embroidery detail

Notes on a giant blackboard offered hints of collaborations and influences, including the collage artist Hannah Hoch, the German artist who was one of the originators of photomontage and  whose work I found so powerful at the Whitechapel Gallery last year. The dance references went over my head, but the rest of my body wanted to kick up its heels and throw my own carefully cut out and arranged textile collages up in the air.

Collage of print and paint on canvas and velvet

Walking back along the river past Tate Modern and then the Globe, overlooked by St Paul's and the Shard, I came across the Royal Watercolour Society's spring exhibition at Bankside Gallery, and had just enough time to pop in.
Just passing. . . 

Most works were rather safe, some of them derivative, but many were gloriously delicious in a way that only watercolour can be delicious. So much so, that I am very tempted to go back and buy a portfolio piece by Jill Leman, whose flower pieces I came across in Cornwall last autumn.

To paraphrase Johnson, I reckon if you're tired of London, you're probably just tired.

Coming soon to Tate Modern....