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Jump Cut, Still Life by Maggie Gray
Solo Exhibiton at The Broadway Gallery, Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire. 17th April - 4th July 2021
Images: Corey Sanderson

When lockdown began last year, Fiona Curran – like many others – found herself abruptly confined to home on the cusp of what should have been a wonderful spring. In the subsequent weeks, she was lucky enough to spend long spells outside, where the sun shone down on a quieter than usual world. A family of wrens nested in the garden hedge; bees and insects crowded the flowers; a woodpecker tapped its rhythms in the trees beyond. Curran grew up in the countryside but has lived her adult life in cities. ‘It made me realise how disengaged from the natural world I’d become.’

She couldn’t access her studio, but instead made do with the space and materials available, creating a series of collages using paper hand-coloured with marker pens and acrylic paint. These tiny works have a makeshift feel to them, and a sense of quiet promise. The luminous colours of the pens echo the fresh, vivid hues of spring, while the steady, repetitive marks capture the mood of those strange days – that sense of slowing down, making do at home and paying attention to smaller things. The works in this exhibition grew out of lockdown, adapting to its strange and changing rhythms and restrictions. They vary in size and materials, but share common creative threads including a love of colour and pattern, a palpable connection with materials, and a wonderful sense of improvisation.

In the summer, Curran began weaving, creating multicoloured textile strips on a small frame and then weaving those strips together into abstract tapestries. Glide Above the Grass (2021) and A Million Atoms of Soft Blue (2021) are beautiful, experimental compositions whose interlocking blocks of colour are softened by loose edges, stray fibres and the gentle textural patterns of warp and weft. In their bright abstraction they echo the modernist creations of Gunta Stölzl, the Bauhaus’s only female master who led the weaving department and taught influential artists including Anni Albers. Curran has a longstanding interest in textile design and speaks knowledgeably about its history, particularly its role in industrialisation and as a historic field of creative work for women. While in the past she has referenced forms and motifs from textile design and the applied arts within her expanded painting practice, here the method of weaving itself takes centre stage. It can be hard to tell, at first glance, which of the colour changes are woven into the fabric strips and which result from the second overlapping weave. The process behind these tapestries is slow, methodical and meditative, but the resulting clash and cross-over of colours is unexpected and almost unruly. Curran embraces accident and leaves space for uncertainty, weaving it in to the very fabric of each piece.

When the studios reopened, Curran could finally work on a larger scale. She began creating fabric collages, assembling swathes of material together on the floor and stitching them together by hand. Curran stops short of calling the resulting works quilts, wary of doing ‘a disservice to the social and utilitarian history’ of that medium – and indeed, though they are quilt-like in their construction, they have a painterly quality, too. Some of the material is hand-painted, adding freehand texture, and in places the patterns of underlying fabrics show faintly through those on top, creating a subtle layered effect. Again, there is a freshness and freedom to these works, and a lyrical quality all their own.

I Live By Leaves (2020), Like Seeing Fallen Brightly Away (2020), and The Roots Are at Work, Unseen (2021) all speak of Curran’s reconnection with the natural world. Scattered across their surfaces are white floral and botanical motifs that break up the compositions and stand pale against the riot of colour. Their undeniable beauty is balanced by a painful sense of nature’s fragility. ‘We’re losing species at an alarming rate. We’re losing habitats. We’re decimating the natural world,’ Curran warns. During lockdown, nature rallied visibly as mankind stepped back, but turning the tide of ecological catastrophe will take more than a few months indoors.

‘We’re just not equipped as a society to deal with grief at the scale that we’re already experiencing with Covid and are going to have to [again] through climate change,’ Curran reflects. ‘How do we meet that?’ Her artistic response takes a leaf out of the book of Hélio Oiticica and other members of Brazil’s Tropicália movement, who against a backdrop of political oppression and violence created works of unapologetic joy and rebellion. Curran’s work is similarly exuberant, but the leaves and flowers feature only via their absence – as ghostly white erasures, leached out of a colourful world. The late philosopher Paul Virilio argued the concept of a ‘grey ecology’, the idea that technological innovations disconnect us from our environment and derail our sense of space and time, and that progress always carries with it the risk of its own derailment. He has been a key influence on Curran and I wonder; what would he make of the year we’ve just had? Lockdown was both fast and slow; life was lived both at a distance and closer to home. The physical world reasserted itself – with all its beauty, limitations and dangers – even as we ventured further into virtual space. For many, life has been thrown off course, but also perhaps onto a new track.

Curran’s work – with its cutting and pasting, screens and threads – is made for both the physical and virtual worlds. Her artisanal, tactile methods and materials are frequently put in service of an aesthetic that seems designed for the screen. Backlit on a phone or a laptop, it is the colours of her pieces that stand out, catching and holding the eye. The more delicate, textural elements – a brush of paint over fabric, or a ragged woven edge – emerge slowly. I am sure that, when I see them in the gallery, they will take on new aspects yet again. These works live in both worlds and, like us, fit perfectly into neither.

One striking aspect of Curran’s latest work is how her ideas translate across different scales and media. The first I see of In its Present Shape it is Not The Only Possible World (2021) is a paper model, centimetres high in real life but convincingly monumental when photographed and re-presented onscreen. Installed, full-scale, in the gallery, the final assemblage of painted plywood will be her most ambitious indoor sculpture yet. It acts as a bridge between her studio work and site-specific public commissions, which until now have developed separately. This year, Curran will create a permanent outdoor sculpture in Cambridge, building on her current experiments. It’s exciting to see these strands of her practice coming together, and ideas first seeded in her paper collages breaking out of the home, the studio, the gallery, and into the wider world.

A ‘jump cut’ is a film editing technique in which a section of film is removed causing the narrative to leap forward in time. For Curran, ‘still life’ refers to the bits left behind: moments that remain inanimate, lost and undefined. It’s a fitting title for an exhibition that has emerged out of such a disjointed time, where many of us were forced to unpick our routines and tack our lives and expectations together differently. In the shakeup, Curran’s work has found new balance and momentum; old ideas have jumped to the fore, others have receded and the results have yet to play out fully. Out of a still moment, suddenly a jump forward.