Issue 211
Winter 2019/2020


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Feb 19, 2020

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Beating swords into silk housecoats

THERE'S NO DOUBTING the unusual and engaging quality of Mary Gladstone's work, aptly named 'Finding the Thread' recently shown at Summerhall under the auspices of the Demarco Archive.

Mary Gladstone is a well-known writer on the arts (not least as a correspondent for this august publication). Here, she has turned her versatile way with words into material (literally) objects by exchanging her computer for the sewing machine, needle & thread, and seamstressing scissors.

In his introduction to her exhibition, the ubiquitous Ricky Demarco comments on Gladstone's artistic debt to Ian Hamilton Finlay: "...an exhibition which is undoubtedly inspired by the 'concrete poetry' of Ian Hamilton Finlay and the world of Little Sparta which he and Sue… together created from the farmscape of a Lanarkshire hill farm with the entirely appropriate name of 'Stonypath'."

Demarco collaborated with Finlay on a number of occasions and in one very apt example, in the early '70s, created a print of a fishing boat entitled The Little Seamstress.

Finlay's work was usually playful in terms of words and ideas and this collaborative silkscreen print owes its origins to Demarco's and Finlay's shared love of Scottish fishing boats. The wordplay rested on the fact that sailing boats used sewn fabric in their sails and the boat's wake in a calm sea was indeed like the stitching of a seamstress.

Finlay was a great collaborator and this grew out of necessity because his ideas often involved the use of materials and techniques that he did not use. Gladstone, on the other hand, has made her work so that the initial conceptualisation has been realised in her own hand.

Although Gladstone's work is neither derivative of, nor dependent upon, Finlay's, it can been seen as an extension of some of the themes that the late artist explored. One of Finlay's techniques was to take aphorisms and adapt these, giving them a wry, humorous twist in the process. Indeed, Gladstone takes up this idea in a piece called The Spirit of Blood and, with some irony has a little dig, by way of Nietzsche, at Finlay in the process:

WRITE WITH BLOOD AND YOU WILL DISCOVER THAT BLOOD IS SPIRIT.
HE WHO WRITES IN BLOOD AND APHORISMS DOES NOT WANT TO BE READ.
HE WANTS TO BE LEARNED BY HEART.

In another work, Scotland's Rose (made using cotton thread and aida) from 1988, Gladstone recreates Hugh MacDiarmid's famous poem, The Little White Rose

Although the poem was written in the earlier part of the 20th century, it has had many subsequent incarnations, depictions and representations. In 1992, the political campaign Democracy for Scotland used it to publicise and commemorate the Scotland Demands Democracy demonstration; while Glenrothes town artist David Harding made a piece of concrete poetry (literally) by using the verse and casting it into a concrete paving slab.It has also been used rather more recently, set into a plaque on the walls of the Scottish parliament building.

As well as Nietzsche, there are borrowings from, and allusions to, other philosophers and writers, such as Hegel, where, in The Owl of Twilight, words again have been embroidered in cotton thread on aida:

THE OWL OF MINERVA/TAKES ITS FLIGHT ONLY/WHEN THSHADES
OF/TWILIGHT HAVE FALLEN

Explaining the evolution of her work and her debt to Finlay and his then wife, Sue Swan (Gladstone's cousin), the artist explains:

In having been a writer for several decades, I arrived at a point where I questioned 'the accessibility of literature', as the French poet, Sté phane Mallarmé put it… I wanted to pare my mode of expression to the minimum, rather than enlarge upon it believing that what I lost in extension, I would gain in depth. As I developed this way of using words, I envisaged how I could work with symbol, emblem and image…

From following the late 20th century trend of individualism and the introspective, I moved towards a public, laconic, terse style, ideal for embroidery, which… Finlay encouraged me to take up… Being inexpensive, I only needed a piece of cloth, a needle, thread and a few other tools&hellip

Gladstone admits she enjoys "… bucking the trend of gender neutralism and frowning upon sexual stereotyping… " and asserts that in previous centuries, when women and girls were "tyrannised" by the needle, it was relatively harmless when compared to today's addictive compulsion of staring into a laptop or tablet. Gladstone explains her approach in accessible, well-crafted prose; this is a welcome antidote to the incomprehensible, pseudo-academic gibberish that plagues so much written and spoken discourse on contemporary art.

Certainly, the most striking work here is a WW2 camouflaged silk parachute, Peace, Not War, that has been transformed into an elegant housecoat. Embroidered on the hem is a variation on Isaiah, Chapter 2, verses 3 and 4: "… and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks… "

LET US BEAT SWORDS INTO PLOWSHARES AND PARACHUTE SILK INTO
HOUSECOATS

Ian Hamilton Finlay died in 2006, before most of these works were made. I am sure that he would have agreed that Mary Gladstone has learned well from her mentor. Hopefully, he would also have been a little envious, as Gladstone is not only his proté gé but also his equal in her poeticism, her wit and the breadth of her allusions.

GILES SUTHERLAND


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