Orla Kiely, A Life in Pattern

Exhibition opens 7 February 2019 at the Dovecot, Infirmary Street, Edinburgh.

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If you have an eye for a strong pattern, if you recognise an iconic design, you will know an Orla Kiely when you see it. Crammed with colour and deceptively simple, Kiely’s patterns adorn hats and handbags, scarves and record sleeves, a Citroën and a sleek pair of shoes. They feature on John Lewis shelves, in Japanese boutiques and the front cover of the Design Museum’s Fifty Bags that Changed the World – you can’t get much more lauded than that in the fashion world!

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The new exhibition at the Dovecot is by no means a straightforward collection of items from an artist’s dusty back room. Care, attention and creativity has gone into the concept of it, developing organically through various stages, as has her internationally famous business, by her own account. It is brightly curated with plenty of space to stand back and admire the larger-than-life-size dresses hanging as if in a massive wardrobe, replicated in a set of miniature stick dolls with names like Agatha and Ivy.

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Colour and print are at the centre of both her life and success. After being encouraged at her convent school by the art teacher, Kiely won a place at the National College of Art and Design in her native Dublin. After a sojourn in New York where she honed her craft painstakingly mixing precisely the right paint shade, she wanted to learn about knitted textiles and attended the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and  Commerce (RSA) in London ”where you can go in with one idea and come out something completely different, where you can find yourself. “ In 2011 she became an Honorary OBE and in 2017 was made Senior Fellow of the RSA.

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The exhibition starts with the Print Library. Panels of natural, especially floral images in a broad palette range from turquoise to olive, and sunshine to the classic orange of the 60s childhood home. Scarlet discs amidst petals of muted blues reminds of Dick Bruna‘s Miffy illustrations which were popular with young readers of the late 60s. Retro yes design which ‘yearns for certainty in tumultuous times’, as the information panel put it? possibly, but look closely and you will discover an intelligence of design which bears living with on a day-to-day basis. Upended owls fit together nicely, playful juxtapositions of original shapes create something new: a peacock tail of flower stalks, parachutes made from petals, apples with flower cores, and somehow they lend themselves equally to dress fabric as to place mat.

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Around the corner is the Wall of Bags and opposite that a set of V and A clothes stands inspired by the mid to late decades of the 20th century. Glorious auburn zigzags, organza baby blue collar, and a raincoat made of the ubiquitous PVC (aka tablecloth material). There is a dated looking bathing costume to die for!

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Like many artists, she represents herself better in her work than in words. Let the vibrancy and clarity of colour speak for her, allow the focus and precision with which she has built her signature and brand do the talking, and you will believe that she is truly one of the ‘excellent women’, to steal Barbara Pym’s novel title with cover design by Kiely herself.

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Aviary, art exhibition

 

19 January – 17 February 2019 The Royal Scottish Academy, Princes Street, Edinburgh

On entering the exhibition, held in the lower Academician’s rooms at The Royal Scottish Academy, one moves instinctively to the right where the title sign and information hangs. A fitting first work greets the viewer; Elizabeth Blackadder‘s jagged black and white Parrots, four of them tilted and arranged in a quirky manner on poles. Continuing anticlockwise to Aberdeen Ibadan Dronte Chook by Michael Agnew and Ade Adesina, I find a dodo, large enough to jump out of the frame, fixes the viewer with its bulls-eye, possibly with a nod to Edward Lear’s nonsense animals.

‘In that case,’ said the Dodo solemnly, rising to its feet, `I move that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic remedies–‘

`Speak English!’ said the Eaglet. `I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!’ And the Eaglet bent down its head to hide a smile: some of the other birds tittered audibly.

`What I was going to say,’ said the Dodo in an offended tone, `was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race.’

from chapter 3 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

While many of the works are black/white or in neutral tones, there is colour to be found in Elspeth Lamb‘s Hyne Awa series further on – a shocking pink sky above and blue down below where the savageness of the painted badger manages to overpower the red kite under a full moon.

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Elspeth Lamb, Hyne Awa

A quarter of the way around the exhibition, it becomes apparent that the artwork’s numbers are moving backwards from fifty. Did the curator plan to start at Blackadder’s #1 only to have the viewers retrace their steps clockwise to #2? I consider changing direction but opposite is the work of the prestigious female artist, Joyce W. Cairns. Not only has she produced the painting with arguably the most depth, Head Study from the Deadly War series, but on 28 Nov 2018 she was appointed the first ever woman to be Director of the RSA in its 193 year history.

Initially unclear as to why the Head Study portrait was included, closer scrutiny reveals a long necked ornithological creature whispering into the girl’s ear. With eyes askance, the girl appears to be listening intently.

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Joyce W Cairns

In conversation, Cairns reveals that she is currently too busy settling into her new role to finish the new painting she started for this very event. Standing in front of Head Study she eloquently explains that its subject, the Bosnian War of (1992-1995) was, ‘like a merry go round where no-one was helping anyone, that this woman is expressing my feelings about the misery that that war caused, the unrest of the soul’.

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Gordon Mitchell, Vista

Later I went back past the door through which I entered to find that #2: a beautiful pen and ink print, Bird and Plant by the late Jack Knox which is redolent of Lear in its simple composition and humorous air.

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The works are packed in with as many as 19 on one wall. Mentions must go to the child-like, stylised Owl for Megan by Michael Agnew (who inexplicably has another work at the opposite end of the room); the pencil line fragility of Will Maclean’s suggestion of wing as can be found on many a mountain path, feathers upright; and Littlejohn’s collage of paper-bird-boats in orange and pink with duck in flight. There is realist work (Busby, Guild) and concrete poetry (the elegant work by Mackenzie with Paterson, and the fold-out Shetland Bird Names by Marion Smith, also on paper).   

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Concrete Poetry: Edward Summerton with Don Paterson
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Mixed media on paper: William Littlejohn, Origama, Cranes and Colour Wheel

There is a vast range of bird life encapsulated in these drawings, sculptures, poetry and other media, notably Eileen Lawrence‘s spacious Prayer Sticks, and Frances Pelly‘s soapstone trio depicting a subtle shrug of raven shoulders; touching hunger of sparrow young; and haughtiness of hen harrier. It is no wonder that one has a red dot (sold) at opening time.

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Lino cut print: Ade Adesina, Another Life
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Sculpture: James Castle, Green Leaf (which is in the fish’ mouth, behind)
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Stuart Mackenzie’s angry bird (above) and Edward Summerton’s 2 gouaches: the hippy Tree Creepy and The Golden Feathered Lover

All photos my own (with permission) except Joyce W Cairns. Title work: Frances Pelly Hen Harrier 

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Murmuration, Greece.

 

Kusama – Infinity

Documentary film, Kusama – Infinity about the artist Yayoi Kusama directed by Heather Lenz. The “top-selling, living, female artist.”

Kusama – Infinity is a fascinating film about the life and work of contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama born in 1929. Directed by Heather Lenz, it follows the traditional format of such documentaries with a host of famous ‘talking heads’ such as gallery directors from the Tate, colleagues including Carolee Schneemann, and Kusama herself. It charts her origins and upbringing in Matsumoto, Japan and primarily her dedication and determination which went mostly unnoticed before her consequent move to the US.

The development of her work is examined and contextualised: connections are sought between real life events and landscape, her internal psychology (she underwent Freudian analysis when she was younger and is currently living in a psychiatric hospital); and the thematic strands of her work. Beginning with the ‘net’ pieces inspired by seeing the pattern of fishing nets spread out on the surface of the Pacific Ocean from the aeroplane, the movie goes on to describe and show her love of dots and discs, chairs covered with white protruberances, the famous kaleidoscopic ‘infinity mirrors’ rooms, and ends with the current complicated collages and larger-than-life sculptures reminiscent of Joan Miro.

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She was at the forefront of artistic / political activism having lived through the Vietnam War (“I thought it was wrong, why send this beautiful [human] body to war”); the more conservative Nixon era when there was very little support for contemporary art, never mind female artists on the cutting edge; the space age (seeing the world as a series of very small spots from high up); the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (“I made my art to try and change people’s minds”), and free love (she presided over the first homosexual weddings). To all of these she took a stance, responding with art, poignant and plaintive poetry, and costume.

There is a great deal of often compelling historical footage, particularly of her wonderful ‘happenings’. In ‘Narcissus Garden’ she hawked mirror balls for 2$ outside the Italian Pavillion of the Venice Biennale in protest. When the police tried to move her on, she stripped off her kimono revealing a red bodysuit and posed among the balls – never one to miss out on a photo opportunity.

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Thoughts on the Mausoleum of Modern Art at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in NYC was an especially delightful episode. “What’s modern here, I don’t see it” she said!

We are shown the letters between Kusama and Georgia O’Keefe from whom she asks advice early on; we see her in a non-sexual relationship with the famous artist Joseph Cornell (27 years her senior) who called her his princess; and hear how Frank Stella was the first to buy her artwork for $75 (it subsequently sold for and enormous $750,000). 

 

Like Louise Bourgeois who used her insomnia as inspiration, the two women also share the use of eyes, stitched work, and blood-red imagery, albeit this latter speaks of classic female subject matter. A contemporary of Niki de Saint Phalle, she has also worked on a monumental scale with bright blocks of colours and complex design including dots and eyes. In turn, she has clearly influenced contemporary female artists such as Anna Ray and Joana Vasconcelos. There are also tastes of indigenous Australian art and traditional Mexican patterns to be found. Pat Oldenburgh is quoted as saying that Claes (her husband) got the idea of soft sewing from her, and this and other blatant plagiarism caused Kusama to fall into depression.

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She constantly struggles with her mental health and the film addresses the possible origins of this – some “trauma in a field of flowers”; being sent by her mother to spy on her father’s sexual liaisons; being forced to sew parachutes in a military factory; and having her art torn from under her, all as a very young girl. There are lots of stills showing her with manic and tortured expressions, shots covering her multiple suicide attempts, and in her own words: “I covered myself in polka dots until I disappeared”.

There is not much to criticise in the film: she is described as touting her work “aggressively” in New York, such terms being used repeatedly about her intense resolution to get her work seen. It was sometimes difficult to know who was speaking at any one time, but it is questionable whether the language used to convey her behaviour would have been used for a male artist.

 

Kusama on the left, Michaelle Possum Nungurrayi, ‘Womens Ceremony’, an example of indigenous Australian art on the right.

Nowadays she is feted, and the feature opens and closes with her sporting a magenta bob and matching spotted dress, painstakingly painting massive and complex, undrafted art work (up to 33’ / over 10 metres) in primary colours full of symbols and, of course, dots.

Further reading:

Current exhibition: Kusama at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Entangled Threads exhibition review