Sheila Gaffney - ‘Others’

7th March - 1st April
Blenhiem Walk Sheila Gaffney - 'Others'

A dimly lit room with the aura of a museum. On all four sides, a series of shallow cabinets with unidentifiable yet intriguing items on display. The visitor is presented from all directions with elements of strong colour and dramatic interior lighting, but this juxtaposition of saturated colour and shadow-lit form only serves to emphasize an abstract quality which at first, does nothing to explain these works, these objects of curiosity.

Only when approached close up do the ‘cabinets’ reveal their secrets. The illusion of solidity, of tangible somethingness, dissolves to reveal a series of lightboxes displaying images of items of clothing. The images are ‘scannograms’: the clothes were folded and arranged and then scanned on a flatbed scanner by Gaffney, during a residency at Bradford Museums & Galleries during 2007-8. The extraordinary optical illusion I had experienced on entering the room was a result of an extremely shallow depth of field inevitable in the scanning process, because only those fibres in direct contact with the flatbed could ever be properly in focus.

The title of the exhibition ‘Others’ refers to people who might once have worn the clothing in question, which came from the costume collection of Cliffe Castle Museum. The museums’ archive includes not only garments of the well-to-do, but also the type of clothing that ordinary people would have worn. In fact, the textiles scanned by Gaffney exude a richness of texture regardless of origin. Crepe, jacquard, hounds tooth, ribbed wool with barely perceptible hair and Central European embroidery on cotton: once subjected to the close-up scrutiny and distinctive focus of the scanning process, all seem to suggest a world of splendour and beauty. How could these garments have been perceived as real and three-dimensional; up close and only after some while did I become aware of a distortion of scale which would have made these items, in another ‘reality’, the apparel of giants.

Sheila Gaffney is a sculptor, and the sculptural quality of the imagery is unmistakable. She physically handles, squashes and arranges the fabric to achieve the results she is looking for. I was interested to read about this aspect beforehand. As an artist who looks to incorporate chance and randomness in my own practice, I think it’s hard to beat nature. and chance for successful arrangement, but I was intrigued to see the works in ‘Others’ disproved my wholly unscientific and intuitive speculations. The folds and arrangements here were beautifully composed, with no jarring elements of any sort. The artist knew best in this case.

In the majority of the works, a curious candle-like flame pierces the centre of the image. I can never stop myself wondering how effects are achieved, and I found myself speculating about happy accidents of the scanning procedure, or an ingenious use of unusual technology. Either way, the result is a strong slash of light, a focal point for each image, suggestive to me of something about to happen, but not necessarily a benign thing, despite the stillness of each composition.

All but two of the lightboxes were hung vertically. The remaining two, shifted to the horizontal, evoked more natural forms: a sense of planetary rings and outer space in one, a snake-like writhing form in the other. I found these an interesting contrast with the more powerfully abstract forms of the vertical, but at the same time they seemed a little out of place.

This is the third exhibition I have been to in the last month with no titling or other information to hand. I am not an advocate of lengthy obscure insights into artists’ work, but nor am I sure that absence of information is a helpful way to go at a time when the visual arts need to be reaching out to the wider public for support and participation. In particular, I don’t understand the absence of titles in the case of this exhibition. Sheila Gaffney has a great website which contains a wealth of interesting background information to the exhibition, and the works on show do have titles. They can be invaluable as a pointer, a way in, particularly for the casual non-art world visitor. Maybe no one expects casual visitors to drop by the GO2 Gallery at Blenheim Walk, Leeds College of Art. That would be a shame, because it is well worth seeing.

Gillian Holding