The Crafts Study Centre in Farnham is currently showing an exhibition of textile art by Diana Harrison. I have seen individual pieces in the past – at Cloth & Memory in Saltaire in 2013; at the V&A’s Quilts exhibition (2010) – but this was a wonderful opportunity to see a comprehensive body of Harrison’s work, together with samples and reference material.
So often, all you see of an artist’s work is the completed, final piece on a gallery wall – the resolution of the process. You don’t see the things that inspired them or the trials and experiments they worked through on the way to that piece. Nor do you often get to see several pieces of work that cover a sufficient period of time to allow you to see how one piece has grown out of another or the themes that recur from one to the next.
I often think that this leads to a distorted view where all the focus is on the final product rather than the process that led to it or its wider context. And so far my own experience has been that that is not an effective way to work. All my best ideas have come out of the process of exploring and experimenting without necessarily knowing where it would lead.
In Harrison’s case, it is particularly valuable to see a more complete picture because what came through for me was how her work is underpinned by a deep and thorough engagement with her materials and techniques and a consistent interest in edges, structures, folds, worn surfaces and transitions. A long, low shelf displays collections of objects and samples – material references – worn, flattened, packaging with marks collecting in the folds and creases; creased or folded papers; small samples and trial pieces that provide a rich context for the finished work on display.
Harrison’s work creates an impression of strength, simplicity and quiet sophistication. This is achieved through a complex layering of repetitive and sometimes intricate mark making and surface treatment using dye, print, discharge and stitch. In several pieces, the cloth is pierced or burnt away so that only a framework of stitches holds the piece together. This is fascinating to examine close to, but when you stand back, the focus shifts to composition: simple forms, subtle tonal progressions and contrasts between light and dark. I love the interplay between simplicity and complexity in this.
Line (2011) was my favourite piece. Six long, narrow panels (12cm x 640cm in total) that reference separate decades of life. Each panel was different and could have stood on its own; but there were delicious transitions from one to the next. Trying to photograph all six panels together, the image read on my camera screen as a single line. I even tried to see if I could persuade myself to read the actual piece as a single, continuous mark, like a stroke of charcoal drawn lightly across a rough surface, but could not quite - there were definite breaks and changes in the rhythm and texture that resisted this. Which of course mirrors how many of us actually experience different decades of our lives.
Pillowcases (x6), a new piece of work, was another favourite. Six ordinary pillowcases that had been deconstructed and alternately dyed, printed and stitched. The fascination was in the way the cloth had been folded over and back on itself, exploiting the contrasts of dark and light to make different forms and shapes. I loved the way the folds interrupted the flatness of the cloth and the juxtapositions of different tones and textures.
The V&A produced this video of Diana Harrison talking about the inspiration for her piece, Box, in 2010.
All the work shown in this post is by Diana Harrison, please give credit accordingly if you copy or share these images. I am grateful to her and to the Crafts Study Centre for permission to take photos.