Home Arts & Culture REVIEW: Made In The Middle – Herbert Art Gallery

REVIEW: Made In The Middle – Herbert Art Gallery

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Made In The Middle

Made in the Middle, now showing at Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery until 19th February 2017, is an exhibition with a point to make. Against a backdrop of funding cuts and dramatic reductions both in numbers of pupils taking craft-subject GCSEs, and in availability of craft-based courses in higher education, it showcases the work of thirty-two makers from across the Midlands, and puts an eloquent case for the value of crafts to the British economy and to British culture as a whole.

Staged in conjunction with Birmingham-based crafts development organisation Craftspace, the exhibition is divided into four main themes, each one examining the varied contributions craft makes to economic and cultural life. Of these, one of the most fascinating is the ‘Exploration of Materials’ section, which seeks to demonstrate how ‘through their artistic practice, [makers] develop an exceptional knowledge of materials, thoroughly understanding their properties, behaviours and boundaries’. And there is a unexpected star: the humble sheet of paper.

Anna Lorenz, for example, is an artist who works in both metal and paper, but a recurring theme in both media is the production of irregular grids made by cutting out many small squares. In her ‘Remants’ installation, she subjects blank sheets of newsprint, laid one on top of another, to this process. The result is a fantastically ragged tabloid of tracery, deceptively weighty-looking, whose shadowed layers of shifting windows hang together bravely at first, then break down into eyes that stare or look away, and finally to shuttered opacity. What is shown and what is excised are both suggested here; what is glimpsed, and what is concealed.

Even more startling, perhaps, are the intricate 3D sculptures by local artist Clare Pentlow. By cutting and folding flat sheets of paper into finely-judged serrations, she creates secular mandalas and viscid vortices that inexorably lure the helpless viewer. The comfortless maw of her totally black Spiralling Noir attracts and repels in equal measure, like gazing into the depths of a bottomless pit.

More broadly, Made in the Middle is also an exhibition about relationships: our relationships with the material world, and the relationship between craft, functionality and ‘art’. Standouts here include Dauvit Alexander, whose jewellery – ‘primarily aimed at men’- is made from discarded metal found in an abandoned Birmingham rolling mill; Jennifer Collier, who upcycles waste paper into delectable new objects like the lampshades on display here; and Kay Williamson.

A textile artist, Williamson’s exhibits explore the relationship between her own artistic practice, and her grandmother’s hobby knitting. Working collaboratively, they have created a gloriously multi-coloured splat like an anarchic map, which grew organically as they passed it back and forth between them, adding new arms as they went. The casual observer would be unable to distinguish which bit was done by which knitter.

Acknowledged in the works of these artists is an indebtedness both to the domestic, often female, hobbyists and to our regional ‘craftsman’ industrial heritage. But if the outward theme of the exhibition is a straightforward (and partly economics-based) plea for the future of craft in Britain, these exhibits move beyond that to ask abstract questions about the role of craft in a throw-away society. If its response is to become an art-form whose productions command very high prices, where is the place of hobbyists like Williamson’s grandmother?

The relevance of this exhibition to a city like Coventry, with its proud history of making things, is obvious. It ends with an installation about a project at the local Blue Coat School, whose aim was to inspire students to explore career opportunities in crafts and continue the story of craft production in Britain. As Amanda Game, the curator, puts it in the programme ‘Made in the Middle is not just a collection of interesting objects for living rooms. It reminds us where the future lifeblood of this, and other societies, might lie’.

Made in the Middle, The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Jordan Well, Coventry CV1 5QP, until 17th February 2017. Admission free.

Made in the Middle is more than a collection of beautiful objects. It also makes the case for craft skills as the life blood of the British economy
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