Turned and Twisted

17 May 2011 in General, Highland, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, Inverness, until 2 July 2011

CURATED by the Highland Council Exhibition Unit, Turned and Twisted, an exhibition from the Craft Council collections, presents “unsettling, surprising and unexpected” objects that compliments this spirit of experimentation perfectly, with work by artists including Maria Militsi, Caroline Dear, Tom Dixon, Nick Ross, Susie Freeman, Nick Ross, Peter Niczewski, Jennifer Cantwell, Lucy Casson, Hikaru Noguchi, Rosalind Perry, Katy Hackney, Wendy Ramshaw and Nicola Henley.

It is pleasing to see Craft presented consistently as an expansive practice at IMAG, with sensitivity to the fluid relationship between contemporary Fine Art and Craft disciplines and within an international context.

Maria Militsi's Ballet to Remember

Maria Militsi's Ballet to Remember

The projection of craft process related adjectives, together with historical references adds potential layers of interpretation to viewing the objects. Less user friendly however is the arrangement of display cases in the space, jammed into a curious semi circle on one side of the room and roped off at each end. This restrictive directionality and the display of pieces which invite closer inspection are not well suited to a room with more than one viewer.

With the projection of words and text on the far gallery wall, the painted wall of words in different fonts behind the display cases is unnecessary and superfluous, further restricting the display of wall works in two spaces. In consequence the flow of works and ideas feels disjointed and restrictive in complete contrast to much of the work on display. There are enough interesting juxtapositions and imaginative space created in the works themselves which should have been allowed simply to breathe in the gallery.

Turned and Twisted presents a great sense of play and ambiguity in many of its selected works. Nick Ross’s ‘Stray Chair’, for example, with its ingenious corkscrew base design could equally be read as the perfect outdoor solution or an interior conceptual red herring. Tom Dixon’s ‘Chairs’ (Traditional rush weaving over wielded tubular steel frame) is a wonderfully elegant fusion of sculpture and furniture, having an almost figurative presence like two halves of the same body.

Lin Chueng’s ‘Room Temperature’, a thermometer with a silver face displaying Fahrenheit and Celsius measurements defined by emotions is another example of the everyday transformed. The emotive quality of the object is ironic but equally playful, a reflection of human interactions within a living space ranging from extremes; Explosive to Glacial, Volatile to Wretched with degrees of feeling plotted cleverly in between.

Audrey Walker’s ‘Observed Incident’ (Cotton canvas, washed with acrylic paint stretched on a wooden frame with hand stitching) utilises a traditionally interior, feminine skill of needlework as powerful social commentary. The steeped arrangement of two panels divides the scene, framing the central female protagonist between the curtains, witnessing riot police with shields and batons advancing. Subtle tones further divide the two panels into dark and light, the intricacy of the stitching creating an interesting dynamic between public statement and private witness. It is an “incident” which the viewer imagines and observes in their minds eye, aided by the skilled technique of the artist.

One of the most beautiful and strangely poetic collections of objects in the show is Maria Militsi’s wonderful ‘Ballet To Remember’ series. Displayed with an open book of “foot positions from the barre” this series of found/ sculptural objects created using the lost wax casting process graft small feet clad in ballet shoes to everyday objects. Each object suggests a range of multi-layered meanings from the suggestion of precision and movement in the compass object, to the separation of two ballet shoes on a metal frame with two moveable arms; reduced to engineered mechanics.

The combination of the finely wrought ballet shoes in metal and their positioning, grafted onto a dentist’s mirror, a padlock, spanner or surgical instrument play with the fantasy and rigor of ballet in a series of contradictory juxtapositions with common everyday objects. Militsi’s ‘Compass’ is particularly beautiful in its simplicity and unexpected suggestion of grace.

OVER the past six months four Highland artists, Patricia Niemann (Caithness), Nick Ross (Inverness), Jennifer Cantwell ( Forres) and Caroline Dear (Isle of Skye), have been involved in the Making Progress Craft initiative, creating new and experimental work to be showcased in the IMAG small gallery in a series of Craft Spotlight shows.

Patricia Niemann's Lichen Fungi Ring

Patricia Niemann's Lichen Fungi Ring

Currently on show until 28 May, Patricia Niemann’s exhibition Bones and Beasts is an excellent example of the value of this type of investment in artistic and professional development. Drawing inspiration from anthropology and local mortuary archaeology in Caithness, Niemann’s work combines her considerable skills as a goldsmith, glass artist and designer in the creation of a strikingly beautiful and imaginative range of jewellery and objects that are as delicate as they are bold.
There is something intimate and poetic about the fragility and universality of Niemann’s glass bones, displayed as a memento mori in triplicate.

Presented alongside the artist’s drawings and with exhibition labels recorded on plastic specimen bags (as if the pieces themselves were found objects unearthed during an archaeological dig), each piece of jewellery reveals fine craftsmanship, attention to detail and a balance between human and natural elements. The artist’s choice and handling of materials; the fluidity and movement of hand blown glass combined with the intricate rendering and patination of silver, like the delicate skin of a living organism, is ironically presented in the context of death and funerary rites.

Niemann’s study of organic forms such as lichens and fungi and of human marks upon the landscape are uniquely of their place and characteristically reveal her insight and talent for turning “human fears” into decorative objects of adornment.

Her Slug Lichen Ring, Lichen Fungi Ring and Tussock Ring are excellent examples of unexpected beauty inspired by nature that are typically bold, playful and superbly crafted. Niemann transforms raw materials to create living objects; a mass of black glass, animated by clear tips as if reaching outward, full of life and movement emerges from a ring and cup decorated with the finest circular design, seemingly indistinguishable from nature’s own marks.

It is wonderful to see continuity and distillation in the artist’s creative process through the artist’s drawings and in the construction of a unique series of objects as part of the Making Progress intitiative. Collaborative work on film is less convincing, and although this gives some context to the work in terms of the landscape that inspired it, a more interpretative response to the artist’s work, themes and process might have been more effective. Bones and Beasts is, however, a resoundingly significant milestone for the artist, a refinement of individual art practice and an affirmation of the need for experimentation, focused support and mentoring to take artistic work to the next level.

Both Turned and Twisted and Bones and Beasts highlight the quality and diversity of contemporary Craft practice. The work of artists such as Patricia Niemann clearly demonstrate the connection between place, visual art and craft that has yet to be fully acknowledged and promoted, especially in relation to Cultural Tourism and the potential for international export. It is a travesty that there is no permanent central city outlet actively promoting and selling contemporary Highlands and Islands craft and design of this quality, especially with IMAG set to close during the winter months.

The juxtaposition of these two exhibitions highlights the international context, economic and creative potential of Craft development in the region. While this is being actively pursued in relation to individual professional development it is time that greater efforts were made to publicly promote and retain this talent. Without a platform or permanent space to be seen, one of the regions greatest assets will remain invisible to both locals and visitors.

Subsequent Craft Spotlight Exhibitions in IMAG’s Small Gallery include Nick Ross (4 June – 2 July), Jennifer Cantwell (9 July – 6 August) and Caroline Dear (13 August – 30 September).

© Georgina Coburn, 2011