January 2020 saw the second iteration of the London Art Fair’s Platform series, a dedicated exhibition within the Art Fair that highlights a craft process; following 2019’s spotlight on ceramics, the focus of this year’s Platform series was on textiles. The fact that arguably the most unashamedly commercial facet of the art world – art fairs – are wholeheartedly embracing craft demonstrates that a major shift in the market has already taken place. The archaic, derogatory distinctions between craft and art are falling away, as institutions, collectors and wider audiences begin to recognise the transcendent qualities of these mediums, and the creativity and skill they embody. I was intrigued as to whether the nature of the fair’s spotlighting would be a token gesture, a mere nod to the increasingly trendy textile, or offer an exhibition of real interest and the opportunity for a nuanced debate on the rapidly-changing market.
The special Platform exhibition, ‘Threading Forms’, and its associated events were curated by Candida Stevens. Stevens’ expertise made for a visually rich and intellectually stimulating programme that appealed not just to a specialist audience. It was clear that broadening understanding and appreciation for contemporary craft was a curatorial priority, as demonstrated by the presence of West Dean Tapestry Studio, who were invited to take up residence throughout the week of the fair. West Dean are one of the only professional tapestry studios in the UK, with an illustrious history of production and artist collaborations, including Howard Hodgkin, Eileen Agar and Tracey Emin. Several weavers from the studio conducted a live demonstration of their practice throughout the fair, working on a large-scale interpretation of a 1983 watercolour by Edward James that is due to be completed in 2021. For many, this was a first, welcome, introduction to the rhythmic, incremental and intensely laborious nature of weaving, in turn animating and demystifying the underlying processes. Alice Kettle, whose works were exhibited in a solo presentation by Candida Stevens’ eponymous gallery, also offered a unique insight into her practice through live machine and hand stitching demonstrations. As touched upon in the panel discussions, craft techniques can be alien and therefore alienating to audiences and collectors, which has played a role in the slow adoption of textiles into the contemporary art mainstream. Demonstrations like these, above all in a non-specialist setting, can play an invaluable part in familiarising people with the foundations that are part of the medium’s fundamental appeal.
The other invited participants to the exhibition were Arusha Gallery, Oxford Ceramic Gallery, Cavaliero Finn and Atelier Weftfaced. The pieces by the pre-eminent British weaver Peter Collingwood (1922-2008) brought by Oxford Ceramic were a threaded treat, not only for the magic of their delicate abstraction, but because they hung free, unconstricted by glass and frames. How to best present textiles became a topic of contention during the first panel, ‘Collecting Textiles’, chaired by Candida Stevens and featuring Agnieszka Prendota, Creative Director at Arusha Gallery and Juliana Cavaliero, co-founder of Cavaliero Finn. The gallerists who chose to frame woven works as you would a traditional painting or drawing did so as a concession to potential collectors, many of whom remain uneasy about the conservation demands of textiles or unsure about how to display them. A frame places a work firmly within the context of ‘fine art’, acting as an interpretative aid. This can, however, run contrary to an artist’s wishes, and is perhaps an unnatural response to the materiality of weaving and thread’s innate interactivity. If a conclusion was reached, it was that the appreciation and market for textiles are in a state of transition, and such compromises may be inevitable for the time being.
The second discussion considered ‘Contemporary Musings on the History of Textile Art’, again chaired by Candida Stevens with the participation of Alice Kettle, Caron Penney, artist and founder of textile atelier Weftfaced and Lotte Crawford, Assistant Curator of the current UNBOUND exhibition at Two Temple Place. Kettle offered enlightening testimony as to the political soft power of thread, both in terms of the thematic bent of her’s and many other makers’ work, and its inherent potential for universal communication. Kettle herself has a history and ongoing practice of collaboration with women’s weaving groups in Karachi and with refugees, who are credited for their contributions. This issue of authorship was a recurrent theme throughout the debate, with Caron Penney of Atelier Weftfaced bringing her unique perspective as an artist who creates pieces under her own name, and undertakes projects on behalf of other artists. She sees no conflict in this, and contested the narrative that artists commission makers to translate their artworks into textile form with the latter lacking creative control, impetus or recognition. From Penney’s own experience, the weavers often initiate these collaborations, with notable examples including tapestries for Chris Ofili and Tracey Emin, and take pride in realising a work in the embodied style of that artist. In many ways, the mark of the maker is embedded into every stitch of the work, which becomes a site of self-definition and self-expression in dialogue with the complex context and legacies of weaving.
Overall, I was delighted to discover an exciting array of artists who are expanding the reaches of modern weaving and exploring the socio-political possibilities of craft. It was a privilege to be privy to such animated debates between makers, curators and sellers who reflected so sharply on the progress we have made, and the mountains left to climb.
Sofia Carreira Wham is a writer and professional archivist. She studied Classics and Archaeological Heritage & Museum Studies at Cambridge University and currently works at White Cube. She is the co-founder of an artist advisory service, Studio Solutions, and collaborates with several charities to promote contemporary art across Africa.