The practice of embroidery or ‘needlework’ is undoubtedly a highly methodical and repetitive task, traditionally considered to be a ‘feminine’ pursuit. In her latest show Stone/Folding, at Touchstones Rochdale, artist Jessica Rankin has harnessed these cultural stereotypes to create an intriguing exploration of the wandering mind. Infused with imagery and thoughts, Stone/Folding (with its appropriately ambiguous title) works in a very subtle way. It requires the viewer to think – to make associations for themselves from its fragmented poetry.
In the large, multi-framed collage paintings ‘Night View of the Parthenon’ (2017) and ‘The Quivering Universe’ (2017) printed words on tiny strips of paper are inserted into a pictorial space which flows across six separate panels. The pictorial space consists of watercolour painted abstract shapes of somewhat subdued colour, which form a kind of converging pattern towards the centre. The disjointed words demand more attention and consideration than they would if presented as plain text. There is no assigned order in which to read them; some of the sentences are clearly reversed, but, with the shorter ones, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell in what order (if any) they are intended to be read. The meaning that the viewer draws from these pieces is therefore even more contingent than poetry presented in regular written or spoken form.
Through her combined use of embroidery and clear references to the aesthetic of a map (reminiscent of contours and hills etc.) throughout the majority of the work, Rankin has, above all, created a highly effective synthesis between visual art and poetry. In her embroideries, the words are literally woven into the fabric of the work. ‘She Oaks, First Poem’ (2017), for example, displays an interesting synthesis between these two forms of appreciation, as it is not certain whether to see abstract vertical lines across the blue sheet of organdie, or lines of text, the meaning of which is essential to the overall aesthetic or message of the piece. Perhaps we are challenged to see both simultaneously?
The reoccurring motif of a ‘She-Wolf’ and ‘Celestial Aphrodite’, which appear as words printed on tiny strips of paper in Rankins’ ink, graphite and collage pieces, betray a clear focus on the idea of maternity. Rather than statements, they feel more like thoughts, through their gentle but insistent reoccurrence. Using these methods, Rankin has tried to represent the mindscape; the indistinct and vague ocean of our imaginary activity which, especially through methodical, repetitive tasks such as needlework, is left to wander unchecked – unobserved, even – by the person performing the task.
The most challenging part of the show is certainly ‘Study, 432’ (2017), which uniquely lacks any words whatsoever, giving it a far more abstract quality than the other pieces on display. If you follow the works in the chronological order that they have been presented, this last piece provides a rather disorientating, open-ended close to the exhibition, as it can’t be read in the literal sense that the others can. Yet such a finish fits with the light-touch that Rankin has used throughout this body of work; treating meaning as something more for the viewer to investigate, rather than the for artist to convey.
Jessica Rankin is an Australian-born artist who currently lives and works in New York.
Stone/Folding, Touchstones Gallery, Rochdale 21 October 2017 – 16 December 2017