Jonathan R Jones is both comforted and threatened as Joana Vasconcelos takes over the Manchester Art Gallery.
The young Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos is a true darling of the international contemporary art scene. Her career has already encompassed major exhibitions at the Palace of Versailles and in her native Lisbon, and last year she represented Portugal at the Venice Biennale. Bombastic and anti-monumental at the same time, her sculptures, installations and interventions have a playful vibe and delight in colour and texture. She often uses fabric to comment on feminism and identity and the works at the Manchester Art Gallery this spring are no exception.
Big Booby #2 (2011) is at once comforting and threatening, the cheeky title making clear the intended pun on the female figure. Yet the huge, bulging, crocheted form looms out ominously at the viewer. Its concentric rings of colour are a visual shock and we are dominated by its scale. The work offers a witty counterpart to William Etty’s painting The Sirens and Ulysses (1837) which is exhibited nearby. The onlooker is left to wonder if this breast might offer succour or sexual pleasure, or if it is merely a mistake, or ‘boob’ in colloquial language. True Faith (2014) also protrudes from the wall, literally bursting out of its ornate gold frame. Multicoloured, crocheted geometric shapes like a particularly flamboyant sea coral invade the viewer’s space. Taking its title from a New Order song, it recalls the shifting shapes of trippy computer-generated pop videos. It is startling in its newness – its handmade, skewed aesthetic deliberately at odds with its ‘fine art’ context. Like Big Booby #2, it questions the status of ‘craft’, just as it prompts reflection on the status of ‘women’s work’ in a gallery of predominantly male artists.
The literal and metaphorical centre of the exhibition is Britannia (2014), a new site-specific fabric ‘sculpture’ that winds, sprawls and gloops its way through the gallery’s staircase and atrium. Its bulbous, snaking forms invade the space like a mighty sea creature. It is constructed from a cornucopia of fabrics, including printed, woven, embroidered and iridescent cloth, alongside netting, sequins, lace and rickrack. Weird organic shapes and anamorphic protuberances are complemented by knitted and crocheted elements, as well as tassels, metal ornaments, pom-poms, fringing and feathers. The crazy colour palette is dominated by regal purple, but pink, green, red and gold also jostle for attention. Many of the fabrics have specific cultural or socio-geographic associations: paisleys from Scotland, ‘Dutch cloth’ made for export to Africa, corduroy (often known as Manchester velvet). Applied glass beads call to mind the decorated textiles of the Indian subcontinent, while animal prints and fun fur recall the nursery. The history of the North of England as the former home to the UK’s fabric industry haunts the exhibition, and Britannia stands like an (anti)monumental metaphor for multiculturalism; an ode to Manchester’s cultural melting pot.
Joana Vasconcelos: Time Machine is at the Manchester Art Gallery until 1 June.