Friday, 29 January 2010

Dexter Dalwood at Tate St Ives

The Spring exhibition of work by Dexter Dalwood at Tate St Ives opened last Saturday. As a volunteer I can attend the staff ‘Walk and Talk’ which is held a couple of days earlier. Generally there are one or two items still to be placed or labels missing from the exhibits but this is a minor problem and it is very valuable to see the exhibition and learn about it from either a senior curator or the artists themselves. This time we were really lucky as the artist himself led the session assisted by Martin Clark, the Artistic Director at Tate St Ives and Curator of this exhibition.

I found the exhibition really interesting and full of ideas that I will think about in relation to textiles. It is mostly paintings which makes quite a change as recent Tate exhibitions have included a lot of installations. In addition to Dalwood’s own paintings from the last twelve years he was asked to make a personal selection from the Tate Collection so Lower Gallery Two (the one that has the wonderful view over Porthmeor Beach) contains works that were made in 1971. Dalwood chose 1971 because he was eleven years old and living in Penzance. Sam Peckinpah was making Straw Dogs in the area and Dalwood says that this was the point at which he became conscious of the larger world outside. He chose painters of very different backgrounds and generations ranging from Picasso and Oscar Kokoshka to Penwith based painters Roger Hilton and Bryan Winter.

As a quilter who uses a lot of collage I was particularly interested in Dalwood’s use of collage as his ‘sketchbook’. He begins by collaging pages from magazines and art history books to make small collages which are works of art in themselves. Upper Gallery Two has a selection of these but they are not the collages of the paintings in the exhibition. The individual pieces in the collage are frequently figurative. I suspect I am not the only person who tends to tear or cut pieces for shape and/or colour rather than the actual object depicted so that is the first thing for me to think about.

In answer to a question Dalwood said he then scales the paintings up in traditional ways. The final paintings are large and painted in a style that is quite flat but retains the boundaries and edges of the collage. He was asked to make one painting especially for this exhibition and the result is Mandalay based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. His technique is very evident here particularly in the white shape on the ground that I took to be the ghost of the first Mrs de Winter but others have interpreted differently.

There are a number of paintings of imaginary rooms and landscapes. These are chosen to represent moments in history or in memory of people or places, so we have Sharon Tate’s House 1998, Greenham Common 2008 and The Death of David Kelly 2008 (this has been used for the main exhibition poster). In his commentary on these Dalwood said the selection of objects in the rooms might be like those ‘My Space’ columns in the weekend colour supplements. Now there’s an idea for working in a series. It occurred to me that being of a certain age I probably own enough ‘significant’ objects for this even if many of them point to traditional techniques such as applique. I need to have a look at The Embroiderers’ Guild book Embroidery Studio (1993) and The Quilter’ Guild Collection, Contemporary Quilts, Heritage Inspiration (2005) as both of these books are about inspiration from traditional pieces.

There is a lot more I could say about this exhibition. The way Dalwood weaves together different types of history, references to the genre of history painting, popular culture and biography is complex and thought provoking. I need to go back to the exhibition with my sketchbook and look at it in more detail. On Saturday there was an Open Day for teachers. There are Teachers Notes for Key Stages 1 and 2 and for Key Stages 3 and 4 which you can find on the Tate website at. I know St Ives is at the end of the country but the exhibition is on until 3 May so if you are down this way it is well worth a visit.

Finally, the Tate Education department has produced some very good notes for teachers. There are two sets, one for Key Stages 1 and 2 and the other for Key Stages 3 and 4. Again some of the suggestions in them would work well in textiles. You can access these direct


  1. What an interesting post Elizabeth. I will try to get to the Exhibition at some stage. We are working at wadebridge over the Easter week-end and then cowslip some time later so might be able to squeeze in a trip further south. I do envy your easy access to the Tate St.Ives

  2. Thank you for such a detailed account of the exhibition Elizabeth. We are not coming down to St Ives until September so I will miss this one but I shall go and have a look at the Tate website.