Renowned for Renfrewshire’s Paisley-patterned shawls, and its nationally significant studio ceramics collection, Paisley Museum and Art Galleries has always contained objects whose aesthetic qualities exceed their ostensible function. As one of six recipients of purchasing awards in the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland in 2003, Paisley Art Gallery was able to shift its focus from filling in gaps in its collection, to actively building a new collection of contemporary art that focused on artists surveying the border between ‘art’ and ‘craft’. Often interrogative or exploratory in character, these contemporary works illuminate the rest of the collection in fascinating ways.
The excess of craft
These artists, both from Scotland and further afield, emphasise how the aesthetic element of craft objects might be experienced as “excess”: as surrealist incongruity, for example, or uncanny ritual, suffocating decoration, inventive bricolage, or sublimated obsolescence.
Curator, Andrea Kusel, explains:
“The artists collected by Paisley operate within the gap between conventional disciplines: artists such as Raul Ortega Ayala [with his office-based performances and objects] stretch the boundaries of what might be considered art, while Claire Barclay employs perfected craft skills within her [sculptural installation] work. Painstaking infatuation with craft skills – rendered obsolete through mechanization and symptomatic of art production as a ‘cottage industry’ – can also produce transgressive results, as in Jonathan Owen’s gas mask, which he has made useless through delicately wrought lace like puncturing. Obsessive pattern making, reminiscent of Paisley’s psychedelic pattern, undercuts the seductive allure of Hanneline Visnes’ paintings with a chemically saccharine deviance.”
Paisley Museum and Art Gallery has long been an attraction and inspiration for artists interested in its looms and its ceramic holdings, and Paisley regularly facilitates direct encounters with industrial or handcrafted objects in their collection.
The Oddness of Objects
For Function Suite in 2005, Claire Barclay and co Keeper of Art Christy Gilbert, worked with a group of students from Glasgow School of Art to re-assess the role of ceramics within the context of the museum and wider culture. They produced and exhibited new ceramic works alongside the permanent holdings, and Barclay’s works were brought into the collection. Of these works, Barclay said: “I am interested in the oddness of many museum exhibits which don’t immediately divulge their use or origin. These curious objects seem at once familiar and foreign. In combining ceramic forms with other materials, namely jute twine and brush fibre, I am attempting to invent hybrid objects which seem functional but are also absurd.”
Patterns and Fashions
In 2011, the Contemporary Art Society enabled Mary Redmond to create a new work, ‘Pick a Mango’ based on Paisley’s pattern books, which was subsequently acquired into the contemporary collection. And for the CAS’s Centenary Celebrations in the same period, Fiona Jardine was commissioned to create an exhibition and accompanying essay, entitled Troglodytes, in which she presented portraits of Victorian Gentlemen from the collection, selected without regard for the sitter or the artist, and arranged according to beard length, alongside a group of ceramics, selected purely for the significance of the maker, without regard for their physical form.
The investment of artists
Tailoring their work to a place and responding to its character is often rewarding for artists, and having been afforded time in the stores and archives of Paisley, artists have developed an affinity with it, and become advocates for its collection. Kusel argues that the projects that result from this intense exchange often provide audiences with a more engaging and revelatory insight into the collection because they are seen through the eyes of an observer, rather that an insider – they are “in inverted commas”. Importantly, professional trust is established when curators and artists work on such projects together, and it is a testament to this personal connection that John Byrne has painted Kusel for example, or Lucy McKenzie has donated works (by Ronnie Heeps and Keith Farqhuar) from her personal collection.
Making the collection visible
Now that all the paintings in UK collections are available through the BBC My Paintings site, there has been an upsurge in requests to loan works from Renfrewshire’s collection, and its contents are becoming better known. However, as things stand, there is not sufficient space to have the art collection on permanent display at Paisley, and Kusel is constantly working hard to find ways to make the collection more visible. The Affiliate programme, funded by Creative Scotland, has allowed Kusel to approach artist and craft curator Katy West to consult on the creation of a visible storage and study facility for ceramics, in the hope that audiences will be able to see more of Paisley’s treasures – including many of the contemporary works in ceramic that have been acquired since 2000.