The Portico Library, 57 Mosley Street, Manchester M2 3HY

Cut Cloth: Contemporary Textiles and Feminism

The Portico Library

10 June - 5 July 2017

Review by Elspeth Mitchell

‘Cut Cloth’ presents an encounter with ten artists who work at the intersection of textiles and feminism. Curated by Leeds-based artist and curator Sarah-Joy Ford at The Portico Library, Manchester, it constitutes an important snapshot of the ongoing conversation. The exhibition sits alongside an archive exhibition of objects exploring the significance of textiles and feminism in Manchester. The glass cases hold an interesting collection: embroidered Suffragette sashes, books from The Portico Library collection, a copy of ‘The Subversive Stitch’ by Rozsika Parker and even a small maquette of Manchester-born suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst.

One of the connections that emerges from the exhibition is the aesthetic and political relationship between internet-based media and textiles. ‘Crinoline Ladies’ (2016), a series of embroidered scenes by Eleanor Edwardes, imagines what Victorian ladies might have got up to had they had access to social media and technology like contemporary feminists, activists and hackers do today. In my favourite scene, a woman in a crinoline dress is sat in her room at a desktop computer busily downloading CIA files. Online culture is directly referenced in another fascinating work, this time by London-based embroiderer Hannah Hill. Hill embroidered the well-known ‘Arthur Meme’ (2016) that depicts the clenched fist of the children’s cartoon character Arthur. Above Arthur’s fist the text reads: when you remember that historically embroidery hasn’t been taken seriously as a medium because it’s ‘women’s work’. Hill’s smart rejoinder to the patriarchal unconscious of the art world is done with wit and poise. Yet, Hill spent fifteen hours stitching her feminist art meme. The labour of the hand and the body distinguishes this meme from the other ‘Arthur Memes’ in circulation, while also being part of that circulation once more.

In ‘Softbodies’ (2017) Bethan Hughes takes the question of technology and textiles in a different direction. Hughes uses 3D visualisation software to explore tactility, and cloth of sorts, in the digital realm. The 3D rendered video results in a pleasing vision of movement, material and screen technologies. Dutch textile artist Tilleke Schwarz has, on the other hand, contributed a series of wonderfully intricate and idiosyncratic pieces using embroidery on linen. Embroidered text, a recurring theme in the exhibition, is utilised in a stream of consciousness-like way across the stretched linen canvas. ‘Gut Feeling’ (2014) includes a multitude of intricate, doodle-like figures, shapes and patterns that are interwoven and overlap.

Craftsmanship and creativity are also very present in the work of Sophie King, Wendy Huhn and Orly Cogan. King makes eye-catching sequinned patches and clothing that intervenes in the areas of fashion, feminism and pop culture. Cogan and Huhn, however, in different ways produce imaginative embroidered scenes. Their use of image and material evoke pleasure, eroticism and the politics of sexuality. Although embroidery makes up the majority of the work, Ford introduces us to the work of Glasgow textile artist and designer Katie Lundie who uses yarn for crochet and knitting. Like the others, Lundie uses textiles to embed writing, this time her own poetry. ‘Lie on the soft stone’ (2017), a soft sculptural form in the middle of the room by Rebecca Halliwell-Sutton, takes up textiles’ role in sculpture and installation via reference to body. Through these art works the exhibition gestures to many areas of convergence between feminism, textiles and contemporary art practices: the connection between writing and embroidery; the significance of the internet and the hierarchy of artistic materials.

In ‘Unnameable by Choice’ (2017), Ford presents her own art work, in this case a pillow-like object featuring a distinguished portrait of gender theorist Judith Butler set against a clashing background of pink camouflage and the Venus symbol for women. While a feminist politics is present in each of the work in ‘Cut Cloth’, in her own practice Ford brings together textiles gender, sexuality and feminism with fun and gusto. As artist and curator, her voice is the one that brings the exhibition together as a vibrant success.

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