Entangled in Margate's Turner threads
Mary Gladstone on a major exhibition of textile art assembled from women artists from a score of different countries
IT WAS A coincidence that after several years' planning, 'Entangled: Threads and Making' at Margate's Turner Contemporary, opened days after Donald Trump was sworn in as America's none-too-respectful-of-women President. As this all-female show kicked off, women united world-wide in protest, in Washington and other cities, wearing pink knitted pussy hats.
Curated by writer and critic, Karen Wright, 'Entangled' demonstrates the extent to which female traditional craft skills, in sewing, knitting, embroidery and weaving can be forged into fine art, rather than being relegated to the craft-based camp.
Assisted by Turner Contemporary's director, Victoria Pomery, and head of exhibitions, Sarah Martin, Wright has amassed 100 works of 40 female artists from 19 different nationalities.
Stemming from the early 20th century to the present day, a few exhibitors are famous but most are not household names. Although many work in textiles, some use wood carving, plants, clothing, hair and bird quills and each challenges established categories of craft, design and fine art.
At Margate, Louise Bourgeois (1911-2020) is Number One heavy-weight. Born into a French family who renovated tapestries from the Ancien Regime, she elevated her skills, learned in childhood, of sewing, darning, mending and weaving to an extraordinarily experimental level.
In this show her pink hand (2001) in fabric, wood, glass and steel, reminiscent of a tired 'Marigold' rubber glove, creates a telling narrative, with a strong feminist theme. But in Bourgeois' hands (excuse the pun), the work is subtle, resonant and layered.
Other well-known names are the Ukrainian-born French artist, Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) and the German-born American sculptor, Eva Hesse (1936-1970), who pioneered in materials like latex.
The exhibition is well represented by artists from the north like Iceland, Norway and Scotland. Traditionally the long, dark winter nights encouraged women to develop practical skills in textiles.
Swedish-born Norwegian textile artist, Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970) was fiercely political and some of her work responded robustly to the horrible situation imposed on the population of Norway during WW2.
From Edinburgh, tapestry weaver, Maureen Hodge (b 1941), contributes a stunning tapestry. Over the decades her work has developed in profundity and strength, not least with her brilliant employment of black alongside a 24 carat gold.
Karla Black (b. 1972), a Glasgow graduate nominated in 2011 for the Turner prize, works with plastic sheeting and is the Scottish artist chosen this year for the Venice Biennale.
Born in Leeds in 1975, Anna Ray's 'Margate Knot,' (illustrated on the cover of this issue) a massive installation involving the community, is the result of a collaboration between local women making the process of creation a social event. Ray's work has sometimes been considered by art galleries as 'too crafty' while craft venues see it as 'too artistic'!
The idea of staging an all-woman show came about through Karen Wright's fascination, while visiting female artists in their studios, in the 'making process' and their willingness to experiment with materials.
There may be detractors, who claim that this measure is patronising and a form of ghetto-isation, just as critics of, for example, Bailey's (originally the Orange) Prize for women's fiction, claim that it shoved one half of humanity into a 'protectorate.' Wright argues, however, that since 'the process was at the centre of the selection,' the idea of segregation was dispelled.
Accompanying these works is the exhibition catalogue with 100 colour images, including photographs of artists in their studios, and a number of essays, one being 'The Art of Women,' by the American novelist and essayist, Siri Hustvedt (b. 1955), leading thinker in neurology, feminism, art criticism and philosophy, whose radical collection of essays, 'A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women' harks back to John Berger's comment in 'Ways of Seeing,' that 'men look at women while women watch themselves being looked at.'
He also claimed that 'men act and women appear.' Really? Not at Turner Contemporary in Margate.
The show ends on 7 May.