Jenny Watson is known for being playful, innovative and political, and for transcending conventional ideas about textile art. Her 2020 tapestry-based piece Sunshine of Your Love—showing an ambivalent woman on a flower background next to a stone house—encompasses all these qualities, and these qualities also define Fresh Material: New Australian Textile Art.
The initial impetus for Fresh Material, a stylistically diverse and politically charged group exhibition, was curator Jonathan McBurnie’s wish to expand into a tactile, thought-provoking medium: textiles. “As a medium, textiles have a universality,” says McBurnie.
“We all deal with textiles every day in a personal way that is quite different to other media.” Among the 20 exhibiting artists, the chosen styles and materials include cross-stitch, leatherwork, sculptural textiles, and felting. It shows the work of textile veterans such as Watson, as well as newer artists such as Regi Cherini and Sonia Ward, the latter of whose work Fountain of Life, 2021, a tapestry, is a particularly startling depiction of a baby. Meanwhile Cherini’s embroidery, Beauty (Hers), 2021, is a compelling still life of women’s beauty products.
Across these works, Fresh Material emphasises two characteristics of contemporary textile art, the first being the form’s capacity for political statement. “The exhibition explores a number of political and ideological themes,” says McBurnie, “including identity politics, queer theory, Indigenous culture, diaspora, popular culture, illness metaphor, the representation of women, and even more metaphysical concerns such as challenging notions of what art actually is.”
Second is an emphasis on the human quality of hands working directly with material. “Textiles are not an art form that can stand without a high level of skill and commitment. You can’t use Photoshop to touch it up or Auto-Tune to iron out deficiencies. What you see is what you get, so it has to be good.”
This article was originally published in the January/February 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.