"Beauty is the First Test", curated by Liz Cooper, 27 April - 30 June 2013, National Centre for Craft and Design, Sleaford
When I heard last year that this exhibition was opening at the Pump House Gallery in London I felt a twinge of regret that I wasn't part of what was one of my 'wish-list' exhibitions. So I felt very privileged to have been asked to participate as a case study as it travels to various new venues around Britain. I've been banging on about the mathematics underlying basketry techniques for years not to mention my own past experiences with the subject.
Spot the pattern - six around one never fails to delight and Lesley Halliwell's spirograph drawings are one of the highlights of the show
Views of the exhibition at the National Centre for Craft and Design, Sleaford. Showing work (on the walls) by Lesley Halliwell, Janette Matthews, Michael Brennand-Wood, Janice Gunner and Ann Sutton and (on the floor plinth ) textiles by Lucy McMullen. Four of the five case studies can be seen displayed on specially commissioned furniture by David Gates. Photos: Liz Cooper
The brain-child of curator Liz Cooper, herself a former school maths champ, this exhibition brings together artists and makers whose work (mostly in textiles) "explores how mathematical concepts underpin craft techniques and artistic development". The title is a quote from British mathematician G. H. Hardy - one of the first to propose mathematics as a language for describing patterns:
"...the mathematicians patterns, like the artist's or the poet's must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics" (Hardy, London: 1941).
'Beauty' may have lost its currency as a standard for judging works of art since Hardy's day, being now considered too subjective or socially constructed a concept. And there are many 'ugly' patterns of human psycho-social, political and economic behaviour that claim the attention of contemporary artists. But as Liz Cooper herself points out in the Pump House Gallery exhibition booklet, the word sets up a challenge and a subject for debate - especially when applied to craft practices.
"In craft it is debateable whether one wants beauty as an end result - especially if one eschews the bucolic vision of William Morris and an idealised ruralisation of craft practice that conveniently ignores the location of most art schools and colleges, and the majority of the population, in cities and towns." (Cooper, London 2012)
Contemporary bobbin-lace making by Gail Baxter and Carol Quarani - two of the five case studies - with sculpture and drawings by Peter Randall-Page (centre) and Ann Sutton in the background. Photo: Liz Cooper
The inclusion of the five craft 'case studies', including lace-makers Gail Baxter and Carol Quarani, furniture maker David Gates, basketry by Stella Harding and woven textiles by Margot Selby, not only adds focus on process and materiality but also challenges perceptions of contemporary craft practice.
Contemporary basketry case study by Stella Harding with sculpture by Suresh Dutt in the background. Photo: Liz Cooper
My own case study, showing three-dimensional geometric forms in a plaiting technique more often used to make straw 'corn dollies' and a wearable structure plaited from a redundant steel tape measure - disrupts preconceptions about the materials, techniques, forms and functions associated with basketry.
A book, with text by Liz Cooper, giving insights into each case study maker's studio practice, materials, inspirations and artistic development is displayed alongside the work. In some cases the makers have also provided sketch-books, tools, models or work-in-progress.
David Gates' case study showing scale models of his bespoke furniture, a range of carpentry joints and a developmental sketchbook is exquisitely engaging. Photo: Stella Harding
Carol Quarani's case study illustrates how she uses lace as a medium for conceptual work. Her doctoral research explores how lace curtains can be used to re-read the relationship between the domestic, the uncanny and the Gothic
Contemporary bobbin lace by Carol Quarani
Oh, and I loved the way the shadows of the case studies on the gallery floor grounded the structures, animated the space and created a dramatic film noir effect.
Which allows me to segue shamelessly into a plug for a forthcoming experimental film of the case-studies, commissioned by Liz Cooper from film makers Electric Egg and funded by Arts Council England. The film will be shown alongside the exhibition from the end of May.
But I'm going to leave the last word to G.H. Hardy - ever the one for a pithy quote:
"It is a melancholy experience for a mathematician to find himself (sic) writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something (...) and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. (...) There is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain." (London: 1941)
Better get making then!!