The concept of family is a verdant landscape. Meaning different things to each of us, it is still a word with the power to both bless and bruise. Veronica Ryan’s Salvage put me in mind of this. As I approached the gallery space, Ryan, accompanied by her mother, walked through the door. We were introduced, and with great patience and warmth she showed me her work, first pointing out a small selection of her mother’s fabric covered boxes, on display in the reading room of The Art House, Wakefield. Ryan’s mother made all the family’s clothes and she made Ryan’s sister’s wedding dress. She has sewn all her life, across countries and continents, sewn down the years of her children’s growing up: ‘hours of toil’.
Salvage is an eclectic collection of textiles, sculptures, objects and architectural forms: plaster cast moulds, charred yams, miniature stuffed pillows with elastic band corners, a roll of delicate, used tea bags turning sepia, an accidental bonsai. All are connected by a relationship of material to space to symbol to story. A shelving unit that stands far from a wall becomes a plinth bearing used casts which the artist originally considered work in progress until she decided their provisionality was their nature, not their lack.
Stuffed nursing pillows, dyed in beautiful variations of blue and painstakingly sewn, are piled to head height. They stop just before their tipping point, holding themselves together like we all have to do from time to time. The blue dye has variations of depth and hue depending on how much poly cotton each pillow contains. This determines its exterior, its shade and pigmentation. One set of pillows has been allowed to fall, purposefully, in its own way. Another is piled up on red metal shelving. Ryan says she thinks someone may have touched the pillows when walking past because they are slightly askew.
The artist’s work invites touch, but we are also asked to interpret what the linoleum beneath each one is telling us. Is it an invitation to approach or a barrier to protect? Simply because we want to reach out and touch something doesn’t mean we should. Sculptural forms, like family members, deserve their autonomy. The nursing pillows, piled high and stitched together, or stuck through with tall metal rods to stop them collapsing, resemble female forms. This soft skewered sculpture has a hole at its centre that open up nuances of conversation.
Ryan describes what she makes as: ‘Not textiles but a structure. A means to an end, to communicate an idea. Another solution to how the work gets resolved.’ The sister piece to this exhibition is in The Hepworth Wakefield, a short walk away. I walk there in the most unsettling of wind and rain, crossing the gallery’s formidable bridge as evening falls. On the door is a sign saying welcome, free entry. I wonder if I’ll be able to find the work. Of course, when I get there we recognise each other immediately. We’ve already been introduced…
Veronica Ryan: Salvage, The Art House Wakefield and The Hepworth Wakefield, 23 November 2017 – 19 January 2018.
Karen Tobias-Green is a lecturer, researcher and writer at Leeds Arts University.