Friday 21 October 2016

Belinda Durrant at the Stour Gallery

Belinda Durrant, at the Stour Gallery, Shipston-on Stour.

Sculptor and conceptual artist Durrant explores the trappings of femininity. Each piece is accompanied with text that complements the work and I have copied most of the statements as they shed light on the thinking behind the work. 

Artist's statement: 'As a child I lived a lot in my imagination. It was a world of make-believe and fairy tale, populated by animals and decorated with flowers. But fairy tale often confronts dark and unpleasant subjects and this often led to nightmare-interrupted sleep. I still have a yearning for the romantic beauty of fairy tale but I let the darker side escape on a regular basis. However, such imaginings are now strengthened by experience and knowledge. Science, history, social history, literature and folklore all become entangled with and inform the imaginary.

I often make or use personal possessions or clothing as a vehicle for the resulting imagery, decorating them using paint, drawing or stitch. Certain things, corsetry, shoes, baby clothes in particular seem to have a mysterious fetish quality, just by their very existence. Others acquire this quality through their association with their maker, owner, or wearer. My work investigates the strange powers with which such things so often become imbued and the idea of such paraphernalia becomes metaphor for the absent.

The work is conceptual but it draws heavily on traditional skills, drawing, dressmaking and needlework in particular. Although construction methods are traditional, the materials used are very often not. They usually provide a considerable challenge to the process of manufacture. However a work is only truly successful if this struggle is not apparent in the finished piece.

Nothing is wearable. Nothing is usable. Removing the physical function from the article leaves only the aesthetic one. It is purely decorative, yet so often that quality of fetish remains'.

The artist's statement is the same as the one in the previous exhibition of Durrant's work that I saw at the Stour Gallery, but I have copied it out again so that each post stands on its own.

Chastity Belt, (hand engraved lead and padlock)


Thong, (pierced lead with spikes)

Orchid Knickers (paper and hand blocked print)

Photographing the works in the cabinets was very difficult as there was too much reflection - apologies for this, but I wanted to include most of the work exhibited.

Metamorphosis of a Lover (birdcage)

The words scribbled obsessively all over the cage are from a song written by Joe Sample and Will Jennings, originally performed by Randy Crawford in 1980. The version here is the slightly altered one sung by Nicole Kidman as Satine in Moulin ROuge, 2001.

I follow the night
Can't stand the light
When will I begin to live again?
One day I'll fly away
Leave all this to yesterday
What more could your love do for me
When will love be through with me?

Why live life from dream to dream
And dread the day when dreaming ends
One day I'll fly away
Leave all this to yesterday
Why live life from dream to dream
And dread the day when dreaming ends
One day I'll fly away
Fly, fly away...

Virginity (lead bag) (lead, steel wire, fabric)

Inspired by The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: 'my virginity weighed like a millstone around my neck'.

Roseraie I Shoes, (tissue paper, lace ribbon and thorns)

Roseraie I Corset, (tissue paper, lace ribbon, and thorns)


Technically blackwork is any embroidery executed in a black thread on a white ground fabric. However, when we use the term 'blackwork' it is usually assumed that we are referring to a particular style of  needlework that was at its most popular in the 16th and early 17th centuries in England.

It became very fashionable during the reign of Henry VIII. At the time it was referred to as 'Spanish work' possibly because Henry's first wife Catherine of Aragon is known to have brought garments decorated with blackwork with her from Spain. Although its popularity is attributed to Catherine of Aragon, it was known in Engalnd before 1500. It is mentioned in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, originally published in 1475. Blackwork was the most common embroidery technique of the time. Done using black silk thread on white or cream linen it used simple stitches, running, cross, back and Holbein stitch being most common. Early black work was counted thread embroidery and was very geometrical. It tended to be used at the necklines, collars and cuffs. It was used at first to decorate parts of undergarments that would be seen such as chemises, shirts and smocks but later it spread to outerwear.

As the century progressed and it became fashionable for aristocracy to entertain informally in the bedchamber, the decoration spread to night attire and bed linen.

Most of the knowledge of blackwork is from portraiture as extant examples are very rare. Almost all surviving examples are Continental. This is believed to be because in England the dyes used on the silk were very high in iron salts and these apparently caused the silk to rot. On the Continent, different dyes were used. They contained less iron. As the century progressed the designs became more organic covering increasing amounts of the visible garment with bold outlines that were then shaded with geometric patterns or seed stitch.

The fashion lasted until the end of the reign of Elisabeth I but lost popularity by the 17th century.

Blackwork Drawing: Washing Up

I have spent the last two seasons as Artist in Residence at Sudeley Castle. During my residency I have made many sketches, little frozen moments from the goings on at Sudeley, from day to day maintenance to grand historical re-enactments.

Chinoiserie Bra (Chinese printed silk, mixed media)

Lead Slippers, (lead, steel wire, satin)

This work originates from a questioning of the conceived relationship between body shape and desirability. Throughout history the desirable body shape has changed continuously and woman has endured the discomfort associated with attaining this 'ideal'.

She still does.

These Lead Slippers are decorated with images of the twisted toes within them and this is what led to my interest in the foot binding custom of China.

Some years ago I had seen some exquisite lotus shoes on display in a museum, but had only a vague (incorrect) notion of how such tiny feet were achieved. My research for this project was a horrifying experience. How could such crushed and malformed feet be considered beautiful, even erotic? By all accounts they remained troublesome (and very smelly!) for life. Women kept them hidden away in their bindings, even in bed. Only rarely was a husband permitted to see them naked.

So who was it that arranged for a young girl of 4 or 5 years old to have her feet mutilated in this way? Her own mother. And she did it to secure her daughter's future. The only suitable fate for a woman was marriage and to marry, she must be desirable. In China, for over 1000 years, well into the 20th century, to be desirable was to have tiny lotus feet just three inches long. Yet when we look at the shoes themselves, all we see is their beauty. I have nothing but respect for the skill and the creativity of these women, who made their shoes themselves and suffered terribly for their beauty.

Waspie, (Hand-engraved, sewn lead waspie with spike)

Bird Cage Corset, (fabric, corset bone, feather and paint)

Miniature Mannequins, 2004 (ceramic sculpture):

This group is a playful imagining of the 'ideal' body shape of Western women through the ages. It looks at the shape of the female body when squashed into corsets of varying dates: flattened and squashed upward breasts of the 16th-18th centuries, the tiny waist of the late Victorians, the pigeon chest of the Edwardian era. Then the 1950s waspie, followed by the natural bra-less 1970s. The increasing fashion of 'boob-jobs' in the 1990s now has given way to a far more natural and unfettered shape which means that many women can 'dress for comfort'. At the same time an obesity epidemic is said to be sweeping the Western world.

1590s Mary Fitton. Triangular shape acquired with the use of 'stomachers'

Late 16th century Lady Diana Cecil by William Larking. Low waistline. End of Elisabeth I's reign.

1760s court dress 'Mantua'. With side panels and hoops

Day dress 1860s. Hourglass shape with tight lacing

1905. Early portrait-pleated dress. 'S' curve. Pigeon-chested.

1950s dress. New Look. Waspie waist.

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes. No bra. Women's liberation.

1990s. Silicone implants, tiny hips

2000s. Dressing for comfort.

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