Felts and Drawings
By Jenny Cowern
A one storey building in the teacher training faculty at Alsager houses a surprisingly large, well lit gallery.
Jenny Cowern’s felt pieces are always striking and faultlessly made, but I found it so impressive to see such a large body of her work in one place. Over 40 works are shown, giving a chance to see how ideas expand and develop in her use of felt, drawings in charcoal and other soft media and other mixed technique pieces.
As you walk in, a large black and white abstract felt, “Garden trees” straight ahead at the far side of the gallery, strikes and holds the eye. This piece is typical of Cowern’s approach to natural elements in the landscape. Initially you feel you are looking at an abstract piece and you can appreciate it as that. A look at the title and then - the more you look, the more details become apparent. Textures of an intimate section of a garden are revealed
Some felts, with an amazing range of subtle colours, look like rocky landscapes. The title says “Bark’ and we are transported to fine details of a much smaller landscape - perhaps only a foot square in real life.
It is unusual to see a portion of tree interpreted into a metre square - I enjoy the duality of those pieces, the way I am deceived but then find other truths.
Walls in a small cave-like section of the gallery are covered with the huge “Sky” felts. They depict amazing patterns and colours of sky and clouds that have been captured in a moment in time. The contemplative feeling I get with those felts in this space reminds me of similar feelings in the Mark Rothko chapel in Houston and with Monet’s huge water lily paintings in the Oval Gallery of L’Orangerio in Paris.
Most works are painterly, directly referenced to Jenny’s conte drawings.
A charcoal “Trees, study for a felt” shows clearly the translation - it’s smudged and rubbed sweeps relate strongly to the shape of a wool staple as it is teased out.
In “Copper Beech” twelve rectangular pieces make up the whole, arranged as if we see this gloriously autumnal tree through the lattice of a window frame.
There are other intimate selections from everyday life, atmospherically portrayed -particularly like “Patch of light on a rag rug”.
A departure from the painterly approach - a series of felts using intricate or bold patches, sometimes layed out like a jigsaw puzzle within the piece, use pattern and colour as the main interests.
Small mixed media pieces using felt, gesso and drawing techniques again echo a view through a window with their layout of squares in a grid pattern.
Looking at it differently - they could represent a small collection of experiences in a box. Again the duality - looking introspectively, using your own thoughts and interpretations or looking outwards to the portion of reality that exists if you look closely and carefully enough.
In complete contrast, Jenny shows photos of her commission at Heworth Metro and exchange station, Tyne and Wear. A huge mural 3 x 33m in vitreous enamel shows many of the scenes from the area and its history.
Feltmaking is time consuming and physical. Jenny Cowern’s mastery makes it seem immediate and vital.
Judith Railton 1 April 1994.