Andrea Stokes' 'Net Curtains' at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery reviewed by Ciara Healy

To come into being, the Greek philosopher Empedokles argued, is to be a part of a mixture. To separate is to cease. Empedokles proposed that everything except fire, air, earth and water is perishable. All four of these elements exist eternally, and are held together – suspended - in a solution he called Love. The world as we know it can therefore only exist, when both Love and Strife are present. Birth being a mixture and death being the separation of what had been mixed.

The pendulum swing between Love and Strife has always been an inevitable part of the essentially dialectical movement of Western history. Today it would seem that existence has become increasingly preoccupied with Strife, exposing us to an intensified sense of separation and loneliness, despite our shared vulnerability.

Writers such as Zygmunt Bauman and Claire Bishop question whether art can find a way of overcoming this atomizing isolation, and resulting loss of sensitivity. Andrea Stokes’ ‘Net Curtains’ (2013) at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery, in Honiton, Devon, seeks to connect art, the institution and the public together in a meaningful way in order to re-immerse these elements in Love, and in so doing, temper the brutal nature of separation.

The project involved 25 local women who were employed to produce an art installation that inhabited the whole of the gallery, a late Georgian building and former home of artist Thelma Hulbert. Stokes’ site-specific project used Honiton’s renowned history of Lace making as a spring board for initiating dialogue on subjects such as status and value, the processes of making by hand and working conditions for women; both contemporary and historical.

Using motifs appropriated from a shop-bought net curtain and an 18th century Honiton lace veil, Stokes developed a series of large-scale drawings, which were then printed onto vinyl and attached as templates to every window in the gallery. Following these vinyl lines with silky white sign writer pens, participants worked together to create the illusion of net curtains. Their individual contribution on each frame became a fragment of the artwork as a whole.

Tracing these vinyl curves and drapes had an entrancing effect. The act of drawing absorbed the participants, allowing them to connect with each other and so collectively transcend the worlds they had come from; worlds so often characterised by duties and roles. Stokes therefore became a conduit, encouraging transformation through discovery, rather than the defence of what is already known.

This kind of relational subjectivism perhaps also occurred amongst the lace making women of Honiton long ago. Unregulated and unrecognised as ‘proper work,’ these women developed their own subjective lives through their relationships with each other, and in so doing, they may also have experienced a momentary catharsis from the single archaisms they were required to adhere to.

In her documentary video of the project, for example, Stokes captured footage of two women drawing side by side, each lost in individual concentration and contemplation. As they followed their own separate lines across panes of glass, their movements merged, and without either realising, they began to sketch out space as a dance, as if the lines they followed had existed solely for that fleeting synchronised action.

But netted spaces are also places with implicit cultural boundaries; where restrictive social pressures prevail, and where the expectation to conform comes as much from within as from outside. Perhaps this is because things that come into being, can also, Empedokles reminds us, be unwoven.  In Stokes’ work both perspectives compete to be seen as reality.

Duality, therefore, is a primary concern in ‘Net Curtains.’ Originally intended to be seen as status symbols, lace curtains were often installed in the windows of large country homes. But with the advent of mass production, they began to signify something else. Typically purchased by working class women, synthetic reproductions of lace curtains came to betray a certain poverty. A poverty the aspirational sought to be seen as having escaped from.

Stokes’ project therefore is a replica of a replica, an aspiration of an ideal. This trajectory, so ubiquitous in the 21st century, exposes the world of hierarchy and status to be nothing but a façade, a veneer of stability over something uncertain, as indeed lace curtains are themselves, when they are used to mask insecurity.

Another duality apparent in the work is the inversion of the public and the private. With ‘Net Curtains’ installed, the gallery space from the exterior appeared to be exclusive and private. However, the interior dynamic of the project couldn’t have been more inclusive.    

For Stokes, architectural space is therefore not solely an external phenomenon, neither is interior, psychological experience confined by the limits of one’s body. Instead, as the conversation between light and shadow from ‘Net Curtains’ on the gallery floor indicates; these demarcations remain porous, embodied and disembodied at once.

Such constant reconfiguration allows Stokes’ artistic practice to defy categorisation, and thus protects against what Guattari (1989) calls reductionist stereotypical order-words. ‘Net Curtains’ evokes the understanding that the material world is capable of exceeding every conscious glimpse we gleen of it and every linear structure we impose on it.

The Thelma Hulbert Gallery was once a house, Thelma’s home. Each room could be said to contain, in an abstract sense, an echo of her interior state of mind, and that of the characters who visited her. These echoes are momentarily embodied, not through the structural architecture of the house, (architecture being a traditionally male domain) but though the act of decoration, day dreaming, conversations, through ‘women’s work.’ Processes, which have always been as much quiet acts of Love, as acts of defiance.

Ciara Healy
September 2013.

“Net Curtains” is part of the exhibition “intoLACE” running from 14 September until 2 of November 2013 at Thelma Hulbert Gallery, Honiton, Devon.

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