Subversive Stitches: Essay by Paul Usherwood
Many of EC Davies’ pieces in her solo exhibition, ‘A stitch in time’, at Vane are sewn objects, or photographs or videos of sewn objects. It is tempting therefore to see them as some kind of continuation of the challenge to the link between sewing and women’s oppression mounted by the likes of Kate Walker, Margaret Harrison and Judy Chicago back in the glory days of feminist art in the 1970s. However, it soon becomes apparent that gender politics is only one aspect of Davies’ work and not necessarily the main one.
Another aspect, for example, seems to be ethnicity. I’m thinking here particularly of One size fits all (2013), a row of large digital images of the head and shoulders of someone (presumably the artist) wearing a heavily patterned, brightly coloured piece of fabric over their head – a different fabric in each photograph. Is this some kind of oblique reference to the controversy about burqas that flares up in Europe from time to time? Or is it a more general exploration of the power of concealment and revelation?
In a similar row of portraits, Shapeshifter Head Angels (2013), the character wears a series of balaclavas, each decorated with brightly coloured stitched-on heart shapes through which holes for eyes and mouth have been pierced. This brings to mind media images of bank robbers, IRA gunmen and, of course, the Russian feminist protest band Pussy Riot. Or perhaps one could see the near concealment of the face as more of a comment on the insistence on showing one’s face in today’s Facebook culture.
And then there are the processes and materials of sewing itself. This, it emerges, is Davies’ main concern. Take Warrior Love Angels (2012-13), for instance, made out of fabric remnants – floral remnants, sparkly remnants, 1960s remnants, remnants of all sorts – which Davies has either bought in charity shops or been given. It has two parts: on the one hand, multiple small square wall hangings pinned up haphazardly in the corner of the room, and on the other, pillows scattered across the floor. The wall hangings, developed first, are simpler. Each one presents a different silhouetted head-and-shoulder image of the artist (presumably) stitched on to a brightly coloured and/or patterned background. Spooky? Yes, certainly. However, spookier still is another element: stitched on Malevich-like crosses, also in patterned or coloured fabric, that completely obscure the silhouetted faces and make them look like not so much women in balaclavas as medieval knights in chain mail, peering out through the cross-shaped slits in their helmets.
An obsession with repetition, pattern and memory is evident in these wall hangings as well as in the pillowcases. Each of these has a picturesque floral or landscape design of a kind fashionable in the 1970s, which Davies has unpicked on one side and replaced with an enigmatic silhouetted head with a cross stitched on in its place.
The colours in these two series of works, and indeed most of the works on show, are bright and busy – jolly in a make-do-and-mend kind of way. By contrast, those in a recent series of large blanket-like wall hangings (2012-13) are, on the whole, sombre and restrained. Made from precisely cut, precisely stitched together oblong strips of blanket and curtain material that Davies has found in Berlin (where she now lives), each presents a date and a statement in large, appliquéd block text. The slightly sinister nature of the colour and the symmetrical, Art Deco-ish way in which the design is arranged seems to indicate that these messages will be something momentous. In fact, they derive from fortune cookies and the date each was opened: ‘He that hath most time has none to lose’, ‘Nobody is digging off your water’, ‘You are intriguing many hearts’. Seen in this context, such statements lose their triteness. On the contrary, in an odd, Ed Ruscha-type way they seem strangely profound.
The video animation Don’t think, prey (I love you) (2012) features a slowly changing abstract painting of blocks of primary colour and seems at first glance to be very different. However, a moment’s inspection reveals similarities. For instance, the blocks are similar in shape to the sewn-on strips in the wall hangings. Also, the soundtrack clips from four different Hollywood films of actors saying the words ‘I love you’ over and over again have something of the wall hangings’ sewn-together quality in the way that they are edited together.
As for the other videos in the Vane exhibition, more or less straight records of strange, absurd versions of mundane, repetitive activities within the home, the connections with the sewn objects are perhaps more obvious. The Cleaner (2012), for instance, presents a scene of a woman wearing eccentric clothes which seem to come from some 1950s’ Technicolor dramatisation of Alice in Wonderland (we only see her hands and feet) who endlessly builds, knocks down and rebuilds a little pile of coloured, plastic dish scourers. Like someone sewing she seems completely absorbed. It is a depiction of total immersion, of what the Hungarian writer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously described as ‘flow’.
And indeed, maybe the concept of ‘flow’ is a way of explaining the special power of Davies’ work generally. According to the exhibition handout, the artist is using herself as a prototype to create characters who ‘perform different functions within an imaginary space’ and seem not just to forgo the rules of fashion but also to come from another realm. And that is a good way of putting it. But it doesn’t quite explain why they seem so alien. The answer to that surely lies in their immersion in stitching, unpicking, editing, scattering or whatever. The fascination and power of Davies’ work seems to reside in the spectacle of this autotelic mind-set. It leaves us as viewers feeling like outsiders – troubled and mystified but at the same time mesmerised.