Trained as a painter, Jenny Cowern has excelled as a feltmaker. Ten years ago, her acclaimed touring exhibition, Skyfelts, revealed her inspired and innovatory approach to the craft. Turneresque in their monumental treatment of atmospherics and luminosity, the Skyfelts also proclaimed a painter’s sensibility. It was the painterly possibilities of felt which recommended the medium to her - its expressive potential, and the ability of dyed wool’s to carry colour into the depth of a work, saturating it’s whole structure.
Involvement with the overlap of different media, and with translating the ‘look’ of one medium into another, remains central to Jenny Cowern’s work. So does the sensitive observation of natural phenomena evident in the Skyfelts, and in a series of felts exploring pebbles, trees and patches of light. Running parallel to these, a continuing series of abstract works results from explorations of the properties of felt, and the setting and solving of purely formal problems. These concerns are well-represented in this exhibition, which, in bringing together public and personal works, felts and paintings, drawings and documentation, is the first to fully elucidate the breadth and intensity of Jenny Cowern’s art.
Prominent among the ‘natural’ felts, “Copper Beech” shows the tree at different seasons, and is composed of twelve sections, suggesting the months of the year. The sections though, are not arranged in any precise progression, but evoke a sense of synchronism - of the tree’s identity residing equally in naked, wintry branches, and tasseled, spring blossoms, as well
As in the fiery blaze of leaves in a summer or autumn sun. In composite works like this, Jenny Cowern typically sets herself additional formal problems. Each section needs to be resolved as an autonomous composition, and successfully plays its part in building up the overall image.
Based on a watercolour drawing, “Copper Beech” retains the fluid colour and effects of that medium. This remarkable skill in making felt exactly reproduce the chromatic and textural qualities of other media is also apparent in “Garden Trees” with the smudged, powdery look of its pastel source, and in “Nut and Quince” where monochromatic tonalities are precisely judged - dyed wool for charcoal, while natural sheep wool renders the warmer grey of conte crayon. These translations from one medium to another are not just demonstrations of imitative virtuosity. Nature might be the subject, but art is the means of recording its appearance. The felts are not only ‘about’ trees, skies or pebbles, but also investigate the immediate response to these, captured in the in the initial drawings or colour studies. Like any expert translator, Jenny Cowern conveys not just the thematic sense of the original, but also the essential nuances of its language.
The trees depicted in works like “Nut and Quince” are in the garden outside Jenny Cowern’s studio, underlining the personal, intimate quality of her absorption with nature and its expression in the organic unity of the felts. This however, is only one aspect of a complex and constantly evolving practice which also externs to less familiar territory, within the public domain. From early in her career, she has sought out the challenge of working to briefs for large-scale works in architectural situations. This requires the introduction of new subject matter, and in the case of her recent mural for Heworth Metro station, the mastering of a totally different medium.
The designated medium for the Heworth mural was vitreous enamel - an adamantine substance associated with uniform surfaces and dense, bright colour. Rather the accepting the obvious properties and apparent limitations of a new medium, Jenny Cowern cheerfully disregarded them, approaching the mural, not with deference to enamel, but with a determination to make it accommodate her demands.
Although initially unsure about the degree of transparency possible with enamel, she decided to make glass the key subject of the work. If possibly courting difficulty, this decision was nevertheless irresistibly appropriate. The mural panels were to replace sheets of glass; would be partly seen through the smoked glass of a bus shelter; and vitreous enamel is itself glass. Emphasizing these considerations, she gave glass a central role in the iconography of the mural - a celebration of local culture, craft and industry. Representing these with fragmentary details blown up to monumental proportions, involved coaxing enamel into taking on, not only the appearance of glass, but of varied media, including calligraphy, stone carving, pottery, weaving, and engraving. The subtleties of colour, marks and textures of these disparate elements were secured after considerable experimentation.
The enamel Marquette’s in the exhibition demonstrate the exploratory technical process, while studies and drawings indicate the extensive research involved in developing the imagery. A world away from rural Cumbria, Heworth’s urban, industrialised setting required an attention to manufactured, rather than natural elements. Using local museums, Jenny Cowern assembled a compendium of evocative references - Maling pottery, Sunderland splashware, Bewick vignettes, an Anglo-Saxon cross, a tapestry of Brendan Foster. Industry is represented not only by ship building and coal mining, but in the domestic production of rag rugs and pieced quilts. And linking everything, glass appears throughout - as the raw material of sand, as sea-smoothed ‘pebbles’, twist-stem and commemorative glasses, a pink spiralled vase - a whole array of historic and modern manifestations. Bringing these truly up to date, illusionistic sections of broken glass, framing views of the North Sea, comment wryly on the vandalised panels which the mural replaces.
Jenny Cowern’s most recent piece is again, a major architectural commission, which visitors to the exhibition will have a rare opportunity to see before it is sited - in a Hastings hospital for the elderly mentally-ill. The commission was aimed at enlivening a long corridor wall, but the sensitivities of the residents ruled out strong colour and insistent imagery. Jenny Cowern’s solution - returning to the airy expansiveness of the Skyfelts - was perfectly attuned to the need to impart a sense of well-being. In addition, the felt triptych accords thematically and formally with its architectural setting. Situated opposite full-length windows, it will also be seen from an outside courtyard, and will open up a dialogue between internal and external space.
A comparable interplay, between organic and geometric elements, is evident in the treatment of the felt itself. In execution, the dappled and opaque colour, and the elaboration of different effects, are derived from watercolour and pastel. In structure, the bottom edge of the hangings parallel the gradient of the sloping corridor, and the inclusion of bold lozenge forms compensates for the oblique viewpoint. Those lozenges progress across three sections, each of which is divided vertically by a neutral band - giving the impression of four sections - of felts within felts.
The Hastings felt, the highlight of the exhibition, also summarises Jenny Cowern’s aesthetic concerns, confirms the mutually beneficent exchanges between her personal and commissioned work, and offers an eloquent testimony to the harmonious fusion of her art and craft.
Stephanie Brown. 1991