"cloaked" : catalogue essay by Jill Barker
Here is one impression: rows of bunched cloth held by a rough grid, pinned to the wall. As if someone, wanting to show us something, is using both hands with fingers spread wide to try to hold too much cloth flat against the wall, and the cloth is escaping in places from between their fingers, and bursting out at the sides. Face to the wall and swamped by the thick material they're smoothing out to the sides, they can see nothing but surface, close-up. We can see them enveloped by the cloth and, at the same time, we see through their eyes.
In this body of works titled Cloaked, Judith Kentish is interested in looking as a tactile experience. A kind of looking that closes the distance between our eyes and the cloth surface, as if the coagulated opacity of the rugging was so close up to our eyes that they could caress or finger it. And that surface is a wide panoramic scan; you can't see through or into it, so it sends your eyes off to the sides. Corners are allowed to roll forward from the wall and veiling is added at the sides, to temper - or temporarily postpone - the shock, for our caressing eyes, of an abrupt edge. For these works provide a space where looking can be slowed right down, a pause opened up for contemplation, or for wondering. But what - or who - has been 'cloaked'? For Kentish it's the close looking that is cloaked.
But when I saw the first of these pieces, it was the quality of the colour-soaked fabric that struck me. The colours used are both delicate and sharp, and so clear that they could be described as luminous, even though muted. The colours themselves aren't particularly intense, but the effect is. And, as colours often are, they're indefinable. One of the blue-greys/grey-blues, for instance, sits persistently between grey and blue, and will not settle as one or the other, even for a moment.
It was satisfying on one level to find out that Kentish dyes the cloth for these works using plants collected from her garden and the surrounding area. But the work's link to plants is not a simple unmediated one. Between the collection of plant material and the completed artworks is a multi-pleated process, a complexity of intertwined and overlapped decision-making and sensual response that is, perhaps, akin to and made sensate through the acts of bundling the lengths of fine dyed cloth and stacking them up, thickened, muffled, hidden and compressed, sometimes interspersed with stripes of not-dyed cloth (places to take a breather), and holding it all together with a grid.
In simple terms, there is the dyeing process: steeping the cloth over weeks to allow the slow incorporation of colour, the way a part of our personality may adjust over time as we immerse ourselves in and absorb the inflections and rhythms of learning to speak new languages. There is knowing what colour the cloth will end up, according to which plant materials are used or the effect of using an iron pot for the steeping. Then, of course, choosing which colours and how to form these 'crypto-landscapes', a term used by Rosalind Krauss in relation to work by Agnes Martin1.
The stitched grid - (sign for cloth?) - holds the bunched pieces of fabric together simply: such economy of means to hold such abundance of cloth! And when the grid has been pared back to vertical columns, edges of the cloth bundles oblige by standing in for the horizontal lines of the grid form. Even so, there are places where the constrained cloth blurts out and escapes, or pulls the grid out of shape.
The forces of constraint and excess are so imbricated in these works we are reminded that to speak of one always invokes the other. For instance, the exuberance of cloth flouncing out at either end gives us a measure of the density of its compression in the middle, and of the quantity of cloth used. Or we sense the weight of a piece when not-pinned corners slump from the wall.
Actually, whether slumped over or opened out wide, the works stand in for ceremonial cloaks, partly because of their scale. The phrase 'larger-than-life' comes to mind. There is an intriguing awkwardness in the scale of the works: the stripes made by bunching the cloth are just a little too wide, the frills at the sides are overblown. So the works appear to be magnified, or to have been brought close to our eyes. Perhaps this is why the idea of observing 'through someone else's eyes', of someone showing, but not explaining, something resonates with this work, for me. And isn't that a meaning of 'ceremonial', that outward form muffling and sheltering something else?
As crypto-landscapes, I am reminded not so much of Agnes Martin's paintings as Rosalind Krauss' description of Martin's 1976 film Gabriel. Krauss says the film begins with a long shot of a young boy staring at the ocean (horizontal bands of colour), then the camera follows him along a mountain stream, after which the camera passes him to bring "the target of his gaze" up close in several very long shots each filling the frame. For example, "a turquoise river…vertically laced by the burnished whiteness of stalks of sage" or "the horizontal bands of a falls dividing into green, white, brown, white, green, white"2.
Here's another impression: a child absorbed in her own preoccupations, twisting the cloth of her dress, immersed in the pleasure and anxiety of the world, observing how to be in the world, where to deposit her joy. How the enculturated accumulation of her observations wraps around her, shaping, restraining, sheltering, hiding; a 'blur' between herself and the world. How it shapes the way she is in the world, and how, while looking, experiencing, she sees the anomalies, that things burst out, do not always fit. And there is the discovery and the pleasure, and joy too.