Matthew Harris, Michael Brennand Wood and El Anatsui
For my study of three textile artists I have chosen three men. The fact that they are men is pure coincidence, it just so happens that I admire their work. They are all connected, I believe, in their working practises by the use of many small parts to make a whole which is an element that runs through my own work.
Matthew Harris is the nearest of the three to a pure textile artist and hand stitcher, although he exhibits his drawings in their own right. Michael Brennand Wood does use pure textile and machine stitch, but also uses found media. El Anatsui is the outsider as he is technically a sculptor producing items from a found non-textile material which look and appear as textiles when complete.
All three take great care to title their work as part of their working practise.
I first discovered Matthews work in 2006 at Stroud as part of the ‘Stroudwater Textile Festival’. A large hanging cloth called ‘Crumb cloth iii’ took me totally by surprise; stripes, splodges of ink, tiny repetitive Frankenstein stitches and cut-outs; all the elements that excite me.
I’m sure they are not simple to produce, but in a sense they are minimal in their technique and although he says “I have never been interested in perfect textiles”, they are carefully planned and precisely executed; “Cloth made imperfect.”
|Matthew Harris 'Crumb Cloth iii'|
He has a strict method of working starting with preparatory drawings or as he calls them ‘cartoons for cloths’. On his website you can see the templates/stencils he uses for some of his cut shapes. Like the finished textile his drawings are constructed from many layers. The paper of the drawings is often transparent so you can see the layers beneath. His textiles echo this technique and although the substrate he works with is heavy cotton twill, and so not transparent, it is worked in such a way as to reveal under layers.
The cotton is dribbled with dye, printed and brushed to achieve his desired restricted palette. It is then folded, pleated, cut and stitched, reminiscent of Japanese Boro textiles or an old much loved patched mattress. The action of pleating and joining shifts the marks made to give a visual disruption to the viewer, an abstract juxtaposition.
|detail showing strips|
Technically Matthew cannot be described as an embroiderer as most of his stitches are functional, holding all the layers together. Occasionally random machine stitched ‘embellishment’ appears on his work, as is visible in his current exhibition at Stroud. Part of the ‘Slow Revolution’ these cloths take time to complete.
In 2008 Matthew undertook a new commission for Colston Hall in Bristol. Working with totally new materials, ‘Scorched’ is based on graphic experimental music notations. The marks are cut and burnt into the wood panelling on the ground floor entrance area but still very much working with many small elements. This is a complete circle for Matthew; the Crumb cloth series based on the work of George Crumb, the American composer, echo the work at Colston Hall.
Michael Brennand – Wood
I can’t say that I particularly like Michael’s work but there are elements of ‘the wow factor’ and I can appreciate the construction. They are busy, vibrantly coloured, and push the boundaries of conventional embroidery.
Michael’s career has spanned forty years and his work is forever changing (‘Forever Changes’ - Ruthin Craft Centre). One era leads to another with elements from each running through to the next. Looking at Michael’s work you could convince yourself it was ‘outsider art’; he is somewhat unorthodox. However unlike most outsider artists he studied embroidery on a conventional course. Right from the outset he explored the use of unconventional materials such as wood, glue and paint.Like Matthew he works with layers which can be densely packed so unless you get up close there are elements you would miss. They are often cunningly disguised with paint but once you work out what they are it all clicks into place. These works can be ‘read’ on many levels from the ‘pretty’ to the disturbing. For example ‘Crystallized Movements’ made in 2004 might at first look like a floral construction, on closer examination you realise the lower layer is a field of toy soldiers and flowers are based on poppies and war medal ribbons. ‘Die is cast’ a piece from 2006 shows a field of painted toy soldiers lashed together with thread. The surface is dotted with embroidered mines, death heads and ‘flowers’. If you take yourself down to the level of the soldiers you can imagine yourself in a mine field and all the feelings that would go with that.
|'Die is Cast' 2006|
Of the three artists in discussion here he is the only one using ‘embroidery’.
Since 2001 Michael has been using small elements of digitised machine embroidery, taking his drawings, scanning them and then machining to create such things as flower heads, skulls, aeroplanes etc. Recently his work has become more three dimensional with images exploding outwardly on fine wires like some elaborate flower arrangement.
El AnatsuiI thought for this study I would actually find out the correct way to pronounce his name and came across this.
He describes himself as a sculptor but is mainly known now for his large abstract ‘sheets’ constructed from thousands of liquor bottle tops joined together with copper wire; leading to the question’ What is a textile? Much of his own terminology is textile related and many of the pieces are reminiscent of Kente cloth. A cloth made from long strips joined together.
El Anatsui started out working with wood, burning into the surface to create marks, similar to Matthews work at The Colston Hall.
His change in direction happened when he found a bag of discarded bottle tops and collars in the bush. He eventually started experimenting with them, flattening, folding, piercing and joining, essentially stitching two pieces together with the wire and the two ends twisted around each other to construct ‘cloth’. In fact there is a whole palette of bottle top formats from the way they are folded and crushed to the way they are connected into sheets. Some dense some lace like, all having different names.
|bottle top necks|
|Lace effects from necks|
His working method is very intuitive, placing elements together and re-arranging. He doesn’t make any drawings – “you might make yourself a slave to an idea” he does however take numerous photographs for future reference.He now works mainly with ‘whatever the environment throws up’ from evaporated milk tin lids and cassava graters to obituary notice printing plates and of course bottle tops. It is amazing that such beauty can come from recycled throw-aways.
This summer was the first time I saw his work in situ as his piece ‘TSIATSIA’ (Searching for Connection), covered the front of Burlington House as part of the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. Measuring 23m x 15m it is the largest piece he and his team of assistants have ever made.
|Royal Academy 2012|
For this study I worked some samples to imitate El Anatsui's process but instead of using bottle tops i used cut up strips from drinks cans.
i used coloured wire for joining and left the wire long and wispy. i think my 'heads' are similar in a way to Michael Brennand - Woods practise.
Websites and Bibliography:
‘Matthew Harris Material Matters’8 October – 3 November at Museum in the Park, Stroud (check opening times as they are now in their winter season.
‘Michael Brennand – Wood, Forever Changes’, Ruthin Craft Centre, 2012.
'El Anatsui Art and Life’, Susan Mullin Vogel, 2012