Curated by Mike Chavez-Dawson, Re-Covering is an exhibition of works by 40 local and international artists who redesign the cover of an influential book onto a reclaimed piece of oak from school libraries. Having been asked if I wanted to submit, I paired up with friend and artist Mandy Tolley, who produces three-dimensional creatures and textile art using a combination of digital print, screen print and computerised embroidery. I felt that Mandy’s practice would be the ideal fit for my preferred title, while we had already collaborated successfully on previous work.
The Hearing Trumpet is a novella first published in English in 1976, written and illustrated by Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington; muse and lover of Max Ernst and close friend to Remedios Varo. The heroine of the tale, Marian Leatherby, is an elderly crone packed off to a fantastical nursing home in Spain run by a quasi-religious outfit. Here she encounters forbidden lore and alchemical powers linked with the former incumbent, a sorceress masquerading as a pious Abbess in possession of a magical elixir, Musc de Madelaine, looted from the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.
A research trip in the early stages of the project took us to Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery to view their small but eclectic selection of Orthodox Christian icons. Using this instantly familiar form as our starting point, we also incorporated elements of the folk style of Russian ‘Matryoshka’ or nesting dolls and the painted dark-hued allure of Spanish flamenco souvenir ladies. I’ve detailed the collaborative process and our thoughts behind the process elsewhere on this site in series of blog updates: see part 1, part 2, part 3and part 4.
Wishing to adopt a handmade, appliqué approach such as might be employed by the residents of the nursing home themselves, our resulting cover is reference to a winking portrait of Doña Rosalinda Alvarez della Cueva; Abbess of the Convent of Santa Barbara. Although reminiscent of Orthodox Christian icons, this nun is no saint: her black halo, drop pearls, jewels, lipstick, nail varnish and leering wink suggest otherwise.
The calico envelope surrounding the block is reminiscent of grave wrappings, a worn edge purposely exposed to encourage touch in the same vein as saintly relics. We wanted to fetishise and play with the notion of an object-icon sought by disciples of a secret cult, responding to the material and origin of the wood itself: cut from decommissioned library furnishings and distributed to the artists participating in the show. When we received the wood it had been previously damaged, but this had the adverse effect of making the area in question more fascinating and tactile than if blandly uniform and squared-off.
Doña Rosalinda’s personal insignia, the pomegranate, adorns the rear cover with tumbling seeds mingling with a cloud of potent blue ointment – a witch fire –the source of her power. Both frosted and clear glazed beads mimic seeds in red and raspberry hues sewn into the flesh, others tumbling out to form a twinkling spillage. The use of animal hide in the form of suede and leather is a nod to the use of human skin to clad tomes of demonology. The repeat red cloud motif plays off the lips, the bloody sky another portent for those sensitive to hidden symbols.
Re-Covering appeared at Untitled Gallery, Manchester between Friday 17 June – 31 July 2011.
UPDATE: Our unique edition of The Hearing Trumpet was one of 3 works in the exhibition sold to a mystery collector – we hope it will be happy and incite dark enchantments in its new home!