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For Gallery Magazine 1980

Work by Jenny Cowern


When Jenny Cowern first came to Cumbria one of the county’s features which struck her most were the huge painted stone lintels around windows. For the first year she was rebuilding a house and out of these experiences came the paintings of interiors.

Though she has explored widely in both subjects and media she returns again and again to the idea of structure. In particular the patterns and structures of weaving provide her with many of her starting points.

One of the key works is called Materials/ Methods/Matrix. It explores the play between media of Felt Weave and Knit. The top row compares the structure of each; the central row seeks to fibrous to what extent they can take on one another’s characters; and the lower row leaves the media to their own conventions.

The other ideas of pictures of weaving reminded one of David Hockney’s “Play within a Play” in which John Kasmin appears. It uses Domonichino’s idea of a very shallow space with a picture on a tapestry. In 1970 he had the Picture transcribed to a real tapestry by Archie Brennan in Edinburgh and so it becomes a tapestry made from a painting So Jenny has been in good company in her exploration of the play between media.

Many of the paintings have an exactitude which means that they must have taken a number of years to complete. It is in the moments when she allows herself more freedom that it seems to me she excels, though it must be said that such moments cannot arise without all the grind of precise and more complex work.

In 1977 she won the Northern Arts/Arts Council design competition for a mural for Stockton car park. Working using the structure of brickwork (which is of course akin to the warp and weft of weaving) she created a beautiful shimmering screen which would have made a harmonious and decorative mural. Stockton Council however disagreed and the mural which could have cost them practically nothing remains a design. Perhaps they enjoy the bleak brick walls which they have so carefully conserved from such a stunning mural. Jenny seemed to hold none of the bitterness I immediately felt about the treatment.

Later, after years of work on tapestry weavings, paintings and structures, she seems to have found a medium which gives her a spaciousness that the mural painting would have done but which also frees her from usual structures. She saw the feltmaking exhibition at Kendal and has since taught herself the necessary technicalities. She dyes the wool, then cards and mixes it, the wool settles with a will of its own and the surface hooks itself together under heat and pressure. Out of this medium have come (and are still coming) some large cloudscapes which are full of gentle, mysterious colours. The edges of the felt are ragged like hand-made paper and the nature of the medium maintains its free spirit. Felted wool is a fickle medium and it’s easy to see that Jenny has enjoyed its unsteorable nature. Like a good watercolour painter she does not try to curb her medium when it expresses its own characteristic vigour.

Andy Christian




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