Forever Changes

Michael Brennand-Wood’s retrospective (and prospective) exhibition; I liked it so much I went twice

Today I visited The Burton Art Gallery and Museum in Bideford, North Devon. The current exhibition is the work of brilliant textile artist Michael Brennand-Wood, and showcases both new and previously unseen work, as well as some of his finest pieces from a career spanning  40 years.   click on pics to view large ….

Brennand-Wood 022Brennand-Wood attended Manchester Polytechnic from 1972, where he had originally intended to study Fine Art. He said, “It struck me going around the various areas (of the department) that textiles were akin to painting in 1910. It was uncharted territory open to experimentation, and, to my eyes, very exciting, so I changed course and opted for Embroidery.” From the start Brennand-Wood impressed his tutors with his intellect, focus and articulation and especially with his natural curiosity. “He was alive with ideas and possessed the energy to pursue the majority of them”, said his tutor, Judy Barry. Love_-_forever_changesStarting with stitches on fabric, he soon moved on to experiment with many different materials such as perspex and wood, found objects, stone, metals and resins.

The title of the current exhibition is taken from the  1967 album of the same name by American rock group Love. It hints at the way Brennand-Wood’s work is ever-shifting and developing whilst retaining its essence.

El-Rayo X, 1981
El-Rayo X, 1981

The earliest pieces on display, from the late 70s and early 80s are built around a layered trellis of wood which is painted and collaged with names and phrases cut from paper text. Then a labrinthine network of silk threads, copper wire, strips of bright fabrics and occasional objects is built up over the framework. The result is a rich “tapestry” which at first looks chaotic, but the longer you look, the more patterns emerge.

What Goes On, 1995-6
What Goes On, 1995-6

The next group of pieces are made of inlaid materials: fabric in wood; wax and ceramic in wood; copper and brass in wood. The designs, mainly from the 90s,  are new imaginings of lacework designs. The colours are vibrant, the textures intriguing. The wood bases are painted and sometimes embellished with resin, marble dust, acrylic and stitchery. Some of these pieces are on a very large scale and it was necessary to stand well back to take in the whole thing. I think this group included my favourite works in the exhibition.

In the second room, the work took on an altogether darker feel. Many pieces were concerned with warfare and dreams; covered in sinister forms, some vaguely humanoid and some that made me think of viruses or hostile biological organisms. Here Brennand-Wood has used machine embroidery to create a huge array of designs including the aforementioned beings and skulls, but also the most beautiful butterflies and flowers in jewel-bright colours.

Holding Pattern, 2007
Holding Pattern, 2007

There are tangles of painted or wax-covered toy soldiers, military medals, scorched wooden miniature mannequins, button badges bearing black and white images of wars around the world, embroidered patches bringing to mind bombs and military crosses and mass graves, then suddenly a bright flower peeping from behind a screaming face brings a little hope. Two large flags, the Stars and Stripes and the Union Flag, are called “A Flag of Convenience  – Behind the Lines” and “A Flag of Convenience – The Sky is Crying” respectively, and are embroidered with words from the language of modern warfare, most of which are confusing to the layperson. For instance “Negative Health Consequences” – could that mean death? or “Enhanced Interrogation” – torture?

Stars Underfoot (4 of 25), 2001
Stars Underfoot (4 of 25), 2001

Moving round to the next section, the mood immediately lightened and Brennand-Wood’s work began to look decidedly floral. Bright embroidered flowers with shiny beads of silver and glass brought to mind the firmament, except after a few seconds patterns started to emerge. These pieces are mainly from the early 2000s. We also saw that a new technique of attaching embroideries and button badges on the end of metal stalks which spring out towards the viewer was starting to be used more. These were rather like pincushions, except the head of each and every pin was a visual delight. There was also some lovely photographic work where images of real flowers were repeated over and over in complex patterns which reminded me of a kaleidoscope. They do it with mirrors, you know!

A sequence of pieces inspired by dreams was the final section of the exhibition.  Strange globular forms with faces and limbs of sorts cropped up again and again, inhabiting a weird desert dreamscape with blooms which I thought could be exploding bombs.

Feel Flows, 1996
Feel Flows, 1996

As I went into the giftshop a vibrant yellow board caught my eye. It was a single panel from a larger work called “Feel Flows” and was so much like the War is not healthy… poster which appears in my sidebar, it stopped me in my tracks. My picture of it does not really do justice to the glowing yellow of the real thing.

I purchased the book Michael Brennand-Wood  Forever Changes  in the giftshop which is expensive at £25, but a large format book of over 200 pages, full of photographs of the work and lots of information about Brennand-Wood’s exhibitions, commissions, awards, consultancies, publications, residencies and more.

You can find Michael Brennand-Wood’s beautiful website here. Catch the exhibition in Bideford until April 19th 2013.


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