Edvard Munch kept some of his paintings in a stable. “It does them good to fend for themselves,” is what he apparently said about them. And it’s an attitude that Jacqui Hallum has taken with her work, which is at the Exeter Phoenix in the Jacqui Hallum, Berber Carpet exhibition. “I’ve lost a couple on the way,” she says.
There is certainly a feeling of her work having lived. They are multi-faced, multi-dimensional, aged and learn-ed. That’s the impression, at least. They also hang with the quiet calm of not having to prove anything anymore. They’ve survived this far.
The Exeter show is the third in a series where objects and art works that she responds to in the studio are shown alongside her own paintings. On this occasion, Berber carpets. It’s a concept that began not long before she bagged the John Moores Painting Prize.
Sun and rain
The work is painting on fabric. It’s a process that takes place indoors and out, and includes drawing as well as the paints merging and blending with each other and the fabric while responding to the sun and the rain.
Any old painting on a canvas can get stuck on the wall. Jacqui’s can be hung, draped, wrapped or rolled. They can be observed from both sides; and depending on how they are presented, elements can be hidden. The word ‘mutable’ can be used a lot.
What’s striking in the exhibition is the immense sense of calm: you are communing with the pieces of work as they commune with each other.
Jacqui has described herself as something of a medium as she draws out the meaning within the work. Possibly that’s down to the elements from Arthur Rackham, Grimm, Tarot, or flower and other designs which are wedded into Jacqui’s work, and which themselves inspire reflection. It’s certainly helped by the way in which Jacqui works.
The whole series of shows says something about Jacqui’s values as an artist who is equally likely to be found in the porcelain gallery of the V&A as at a science conference. She relates to an idea or a stimulus rather than the fact that something looks like art. And that’s where the Berber rugs did resonate.
For the first show in this series, Jacqui exhibited with print works by Leon Kossoff. For the second show, she worked with artist Phil Root whose brief was to make something without pre-ordained form or function. That way of working is reflected in how Jacqui herself goes about creating new pieces.
Looking for clues
“You’re just led through the process by happenstance, and by your mind and your memory. You look for clues, you address the clues and incorporate and embrace them,” she says.
Picking out those clues depend on a whole panoply of elements: psychology, upbringing, memory. It’s juggling the dialogue without imposing the intent which seems to be at the heart of Jacqui’s painting work. And it invites reflection, both in the process and in observation.
A negotiation with circumstance
Creating the work is “more like a negotiation with circumstance and with the context and with the space, because that’s how it tends to be as you go through the world”, rather than tyrannically imposing a world view, says Jacqui.
All of this work is reflected, to a certain extent, in the Berber carpets themselves. Woven into each thread is a history of the person who made them, the family who made them; of the women who gathered together to produce the historic designs passed down through generations. The carpets themselves had any number of functions: as a dowry; to be purchased; to be used; and were reflective of both place and people.
The geometric designs of the Berber carpets were passed on, and the carpets were rolled continually, so those working on them can only see about 30cms of weaving and could never see the previous day’s work.
The idea for the series of exhibitions emerged at around the same time that Jacqui won the John Moores Painting Prize.
“After 20 years, the John Moores prize felt like a stamp of approval,” says Jacqui, who felt that now she was authorised to carry on and be more confident in her decision-making.
However, in her still life practice, winning the prize made her think a lot more about skill.
“Around the John Moores period, I could sense my still lives tightening up and I was almost trying to prove my skills where I never felt I had to do that before,” she says. “It’s not that you shouldn’t have skill, but it’s that every mark shouldn’t be micro-managed in accordance with the level of skill that it exhibits.”
Jacqui went to school in Kingsbridge, did her foundation in Torquay before studying in Coventry and London, and this is the first time – saving one painting at Dartington – that she has exhibited in Devon since her foundation show.
“I understood Devon differently when I was growing up here, as a young person its easy to perceive limitations,” says Jacqui. But in returning to Devon, she found she could tap back into her roots and find some creative space.
The natural world
Jacqui is also a gardener, presiding over the unpredictability and order of the natural world.
“It suits me because it’s physical and it’s different to art making. I’ve generally always had a job that used a different part of myself than what art making uses,” she says.
Maybe it’s that combination of worlds that creates the confident calm of Jacqui’s paintings as they accompany the Berber carpets. Maybe it’s the reflection of the world you take into the gallery with you. But it certainly is a complex, engaging conversation. You just have to listen a little to hear it and the works’ stories.
Jacqui Hallum, Berber Carpet exhibition is at the Exeter Phoenix until April 21.
ARTISTS TALK | SAT 30 MARCH | 2.30PM | FREE
Jacqui Hallum will be in conversation with curator Dan Howard-Birt discussing their recent series of exhibitions and her wider practice.