Ruthin Craft Centre’s sense of place

Derek Jones celebrates the latest addition to Wales’ national institutions

It is a tribute to the versatility of the Ruthin Craft Centre – opened in 1982, rebuilt and re-opened  2008 – that every time a new exhibition is launched it almost seems as if you are entering an entirely new building. The dimensions of the rooms are, of course, the same, but the possibilities for the arrangement and re-arrangement of exhibits seem to be infinite.

From September until  November last year the Centre housed, in the main gallery, an exhibition entitled Sitting and Looking, curated by the furniture makers Jim Partridge and Liz Walmsley. In an adjoining smaller gallery, was a related exhibition, Making Chairs, by the mid-Wales craftsman, David Colwell. The two spaces, in which seats were arranged informally, made possible an atmosphere of intimacy, in keeping with Partridge and Walmsley’s ambition to produce work “with a strong but quiet presence in the landscape”. Their shapely oak benches with a black finish have been, quietly and strongly, emphasising the new Craft Centre courtyard’s sense of place since it opened in 2008.

The current exhibition Inspired by: The Legacy of Anni Albers, December 2010 to 6 February 2011, could not be more different. The design of the Centre makes it possible for the two galleries to work as one. Work by the great weaver herself, Anni Albers of the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, occupies the smaller space. However, the visitor is first confronted by a series of large wall hangings and installations which require one to stand back, move round, and even to look round a corner.

The main gallery, spacious, illuminated by natural light from above, makes  possible a comprehensive examination of the work of contemporary weavers, who acknowledge Anni Albers’ influence on them: Dorte Behn, Christopher Farr, Ptolemy Mann, Fiona Mathison, Laura Thomas and Wallace Sewell.

It is an extraordinary coup for a town with a population of less than 6,000 to attract the interest of such a body as the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. It is the first time that examples of Albers’ prints, textiles and jewellery have been shown together in the United Kingdom.

But it is the kind of coup we have come to expect from the Craft Centre. Earlier this year, for example, it housed an exhibition of contemporary silverware from the Goldsmith’s Hall, a very rare excursion out of London for that company. It is not pretentious to argue that the Anni Albers exhibition could just as easily have happened in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. That it came to Ruthin is the result of the vision of the Craft Centre staff, who have, over the last quarter century, built up an international reputation for ambition and quality. Philip Hughes, the director, has always argued that he does not see why the people of north east Wales should not have sight of the very best work now being created. I doubt whether he would put it quite like this, but devolution must surely apply to culture as well as to politics.

The Bauhaus manifesto (issued in Weimar, 1919) undermined another kind of false division:

“There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman… the artist is an exalted craftsman… let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between artist and craftsman”.

These principles are alive and well at Ruthin, never more so than in the current exhibitions. As Philip Hughes told me, “Everything we do goes back to the Bauhaus”.

Whilst in Dessau, the Bauhaus’ second home, in 1927 Anni had attended Paul Klee’s class on weaving. His influence was long term. The zinc plates named ‘Line Involvement’ (1963-64), now on display in Ruthin, inescapably reflect Klee’s “taking a line for a walk”, but the creative insights involved are translated into Albers’ own medium. As a board member of the Civic Trust for Wales and a member of Ruthin and District Civic Association, I was particularly struck with her pictorial weaving entitled ‘City’ (1949, pictured above left), in which streets and buildings are represented schematically in brown linen and cotton. The Bauhaus preoccupation with architecture came naturally to mind, but weaving, actually and metaphorically, was entirely apposite. Albers writes:

“Weaving is an example of a craft which is many-sided. Besides surface qualities, such as rough and smooth, dull and shiny, hard and soft, it also includes colour, and, as the dominating element, texture, which is the result of the construction of the weave. Like any craft, it may end in producing useful objects, or it may rise to the level of art”.

At the same time, he remarked:

“If the nature of architecture is the grounded, the fixed, the permanent, then textiles are its very antithesis. If, however, we think of the process of building and the process of weaving and compare the work involved, we will find similarities despite the vast difference in scale. Both construct a whole from separate parts that retain their identity, a manner of proceeding fundamentally different from that of working metal, for instance, or clay, where parts are absorbed into an entity” (On Weaving, 1959).

Anni Albers was evidently a skilled wordsmith as well as a skilled weaver. She learned spoken and written English after events in Germany forced her and her husband Josef to move to the US in 1933.

It came as a bit of a surprise – but perhaps it shouldn’t have – to see some of Albers’ jewellery – fashioned variously from a tea strainer, bobby pins, aluminium washers, and corks, all of them colourfully decorated. Josef’s influence was probably at work here: T. Lux Feininger remembered “a most impressive structure” made during one of his classes, “composed of nothing but used safety-razor blades, which are slotted and punched by the manufacturer, and spent wooden matches”. At the very least, like many other artists and craftspeople before and since, these works teach us to look at ordinary objects with fresh eyes, even, perhaps especially, those which were originally mass produced.

Anni Albers died in 1994. Her influence continues, and it is part of the purpose of this exhibition to demonstrate how. Again and again, I was pleased to see, her modern followers refer to the connection between weaving and architecture. Dorte Behn suggests that weaving is “a method of construction next to architecture”. Ptolemy Mann writes about “the geometric tension of Albers’ early wall pieces from 1925”. The word geometry occurs again and again.

Christopher Farr’s Smyrna Rug (pictured, left),  shown in Ruthin for the first time, is taken directly from an archive of Anni Albers’ designs. There are certainly connections to be made between this and Albers’ City discussed above. I was put in mind of her description of weaving as “one of the most ancient crafts… a method of forming a pliable plane of threads by interlacing them rectangularly, invented in a pre-ceramic age”. Making a wonderfully colourful splash along one wall of the gallery, the rug was made of hand spun Anatolian wool, blended with mohair, in Konya, an ancient weaving centre in central Turkey.

In total contrast, Fiona Mattison’s Sanctums is absolutely of the present moment: this is an installation, the result, she says, of “time spent playing with stuff, trying things out, playing with ideas and reflecting on the results”. The curators (Brenda Danilowitz, who is chief curator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and Ann Jones) have cunningly hidden the installation behind a partition, making an enclosed space in which to explore Mattison’s vertical poles made of thread, “but also becoming” she writes, “warps through which the viewers weave as they negotiate and explore the exhibition spaces”. Whilst they do so, they might see themselves in the mirrors which surround the piece.

Each artist has his or her space in the gallery, but, entering it, I was drawn to two works which are designedly architectonic. The German weaver Dorte Behn  has constructed, in linen, an installation, Neuer Raum 1, which, because it is transparent, starts reflections on the shape and density of buildings. Ptolemy Mann, similarly, describes her beautifully colourful Three Pieces to Dress a Wall as architectural “towers of cloth”. There is, as she points out, nothing functional about her towers, but anyone faintly aware of shapes in the modern built environment may be impelled to think more deeply about tower blocks. Their imagery places them ‘anywhere in the 20th or 21st Centuries.

The Resonate sculptures of Laura Thomas (pictured, left), currently Creative Wales Ambassador, in residence at the Craft Centre for the next two years, loose threads in acrylic resin. Again, they reflect these dominant features of the contemporary built environment. She asks, “What exactly is a textile, and what can it be?” And, like all her co-exhibitionists, in her Three X Five, made only a few months ago, she sets out “to create a large scale study of geometry, repeat pattern and colour”. Repeat patterns, a rather more traditional feature of weaving, are vividly present in the floor to ceiling silk sampler fabric manufactured by the firm Walter Sewell. It is designed by hand, as one would have expected in such an exhibition, but, interestingly different from all its co-exhibits, woven by machine.

This exhibition is ‘inspired’ in every sense of the word. Brenda Danilowitz and Ann Jones curated the section on Annu Albers. Gregory Parsons curated the rest of the exhibition. It is extraordinary that work of this quality should be shown under the auspices of a local authority, Denbighshire County Council. All power to their elbow and let nobody think that the Ruthin Craft Centre is a candidate for cuts, or, perish the thought, privatisation!

Inspired by: The Legacy of Anni Albers runs at Ruthin Craft Centre, Park Road, Ruthin until 6th February. Entry is Free. The next exhibition, Silverstruck, runs from 12 February until 27 March, and is a collaboration with National Museum Wales, featuring recently acquired pieces from its permanent collection and a selection of new work by established and emerging silversmiths. The exhibition will transfer to Cardiff to be exhibited from 12 April until mid-July.

Derek Jones is a freelance writer.

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