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Jenny Cowern: Sea and Rocks; Shore-line of Cumbria - Felts and Drawings. Sheridan Russell

Gallery, Crawford Street, London W1

June 15 - July 3 1998 CRAFTS Issue 155 Nov/ Dec 1998

 Rocks, waves, spray, the beach scoured by the tide. This was the subject matter of Jenny Cowern’s show. At times she worked to the scale of traditional landscape painting, at others she moved in so close that the images become almost abstract compositions- a limpets eye view. In terms of materials there was a similar continuum between the conventional pastels, ink, charcoal and the unexpected: in this case, felt. Cowern uses felt as a variant of paint, making pieces which better fit the word ‘picture’ than ‘hanging’.

Cowern has been excited by the expressive potential of felt since seeing M.Ed. Burkett’s travelling exhibition ‘The Art of the Feltmaker’, in 1979. That show consisted mainly of traditional articles: rugs, shepherd’s cloaks, camel head-dresses, hats. As Cowern wrote in Crafts in 1981, ‘Though beautiful this was not the aspect which interested me. It was the mural scale, the freedom, unfussiness, oven crudeness and the directness which appealed’

The Sky Felts that Cowern produced in response to this unfamiliar medium were large explorations of clouds and sky, which clearly convey a Constable-like excitement at looking upwards. Since then she has refined her techniques and is able to work on a smaller scale, with more accurate definition. This increased delicacy was evident throughout the show, particularly in the airy plumes of foam or spray that bring such life to the series Sandstone rock and Tide. Greater restraint was also signalled by the fact that the majority of the work is now presented behind glass. This has the simultaneous effect of aligning it with the drawings, while distancing it from connotations of more 3D textiles.

One striking aspect of this collection was the rock colour, Instead of being cold and grey; these rocks were a warm pinky red, the same dramatic colour that makes a first sighting of Carlisle Cathedral such a startling experience. The explanation is simple enough: the local sandstone is very red. Far from being fanciful, Cowern was in this respect making a faithful record of a particular place. Where her work departs from the topographical is in its evocation of the energy and dash of tidal water.

Two paired pieces made it possible to see what Cowern, who describes herself as ‘a painter in thought, training and discipline’, gains from using felt. ‘Tidal Sandstone, Sun and Shadow’ and two of the ‘Sandstone Rock and Tide’ series presented similar images in pastels and felt. The felts are bigger than the pastels, but that alone did not account for their greater immediacy. Rather it was the sense that the colour was coming from the heart of the felt, as indeed it was, as opposed to the pastels having been applied to a surface.

Technical accomplishment is another impressive aspect of Cowern’s work. Her ability to translate her drawings and colour sketches into a great fluffy pile of dyed fleece, which then, through the felting process, is condensed into a clearly delineated image, is admirable. However, while enjoying the richness of colour and the good drawing, I must admit a reservation, which relates to her subject matter. Rocks are hard; the sea is wet, cold, and shiny. But those words are not part of felt’s vocabulary- rather, it speaks to the eye of warmth, depth, comfort, Perhaps this is a contradiction Jenny Cowern wanted to exploit, but I found it odd to have the vigour and play of the sea so well portrayed, without a counterbalancing sense of its harshness.

 Ruth Pavey 1998



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