Unnamed 2 Enlarge
Sara Barker ‘Soil like toppled alphabets’ 2016. Courtesy Mary Mary Gallery, Glasgow

The expansive exhibition currently occupying the new galleries at Tate St Ives presents an array of artworks that, prism-like, reflect upon Virginia Woolf’s influence on visual practices over time. Curated thematically, it charts an enduring legacy that not only highlights artists who return to Woolf’s writings as primary research material, but also covers the practices of her friends and relatives and the work of artists who are not necessarily citing Woolf as a guide, but who are working in ways that continue to tackle the (still) urgent questions that she endeavoured to address through her life. These questions could be described as both major and minor, public and private, often pertaining to a stripping back of patriarchal power, but the exhibition doesn’t allow for simplified distinctions. Under the ever-present guidance of “we think back through our mothers” [1], the exhibition, curated by Laura Smith, joyously offers the type of survey which looks at the idea of influence, not as a one-way distanced transmission, but as having a dialectical and potentially reciprocal closeness.

Playing out some of Woolf’s key themes, the exhibition is portioned into four: the exterior world of our relationship to landscape, the exterior world inhabited by ideas of the public/performed female, the interior world of the home, and the interior world of consciousness and the intimacy of thought. The location of St Ives as a place of return for the young Woolf is celebrated and interrogated through the abundance of landscape imagery captured in the paintings of many of the artists; Winifred Nicholson’s marks are recurrent and experiencing her tones in-situ has a magnetic energy, which along with the other depictions of place, enables a grounding from which to experience the other facets. 

Unnamed 5 Enlarge
CLAUDE CAHUN ‘Studies for a keepsake’ c.1925–6. Courtesy Jersey Heritage

The thematically arranged constellations of artworks have been carefully dealt with; the sequencing and pace weaves layers of qualities, biographies and attentions. This volume of artworks (over 250 pieces) requires a sensitive type of organisation that allows an accumulation of meaning (in common with the narrative dialogue of any exhibition) but also allows these objects their autonomy; a feeling that they temporarily reside together to create a statement through insistence of difference. My experience of the exhibition coincided with a gobbling of Chris Kraus’ Torpor (2006), and I cannot ignore the way this parallel reading fed into my responses: Krauss both utilises and describes the effects of changing the tense within a narrative, to variously bring events closer, to distance relationships, to make the reader identify in a particular way that is perhaps at odds with a neutralising, smoothing use of one tense throughout “There is a tense of longing and regret, in which every step you take becomes delayed, revised, held back a little bit” [2]. The way the artworks sit with each other remind me of this; there’s no line of progression offered, the very idea of one direction of movement is refuted, instead, the lack of chronology messes with the conception that the past is knowable and concrete and mute, reminding us that the present must remain in a reflective, or better, refractive state.

The inclusion of more fluid, less concrete manifestations of ideas is seen in excerpts from materials that convey the relationships, doubts and humour between friends, through the display of letters, notes, postcards amongst other objects associated with Woolf’s life in language. A reflection on the epistolary form is seen in Moyra Davey’s ‘Wedding Loop’ (2017); the artist’s voice flows throughout and this act of speech is visually present as motions to and fro through the domestic scene. There’s a play here with inserting oneself into the circuits of production, narrative, influence.

Unnamed 4 Enlarge
Dame Laura Knight, R.A., R.W.S. (1877-1970). Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight

If a sense of pattern or archetype within a section of the exhibition started to take root, a new thread would seep in, wayward seeming initially, to guide me towards a new idea. This was a subtle redirecting, but brought with it an exciting feeling of the anticipatory nature of discovery; something in the sequencing left me with a sense that seeds had been planted in my mind earlier, and they had come to fruition without noticing their growth, to the point where an unfolding of different artistic urges or qualities was taking place both outwith my control (on the walls in front of me) and within my consciousness. This is possibly thanks to the fact that the thematic zones are predicated on one another: the landscapes exist because somebody attended to them. Depiction of landscape is necessarily generated from a relationship with a place, and within this, the question of production and reproduction appears more acutely as the focus shifts to more apparently inward looking practices.

To name examples of works sparking this subtle redirecting in such a short text seems at odds with the way the exhibition maps, both through time and space, a depth in range of artworks, but there are a couple that exemplify the surprise in these moments. Mary Kelly’s ‘How to use the shelter as a table’ (2012) provided one; an image of a rudimentary grid-like shelter has been set up as a dining table for two, the image is built from strips that have collected the lint from a tumble dryer, an adhesive picking up the negative spaces of the image, making a ghostly after-image rendering of this quasi-domestic space. Eileen Agar’s surrealist collages (‘Ladybird’ and ‘Precious Stones’, both 1936) present a conflation of internal and external worlds that hold a special energy that asks questions around freedom and restraint. Rosha Yaghmai’s ‘Super Glue Fuming’ (2017, made from silicone, quilting cotton, pigment and bricks) statically presents an allusion to a pause in time; neither opaque nor transparent, it projects a kind of quiet, dampened pace and place for reflection. Ithell Colquhoun’s ‘Alcove’ (1946) and ‘Alcove II’ (1848), a pair of richly coloured decalcomanias seemingly lifted from the threshold of a body (which also form the cover image for the exhibition’s publication; a prologue in some ways) seem to manage to bear their own weight in a way that gives proximate artworks a lift.

Unnamed 3 Enlarge
Mary Kelly ‘How to use the shelter as a table’ 2012. Courtesy the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London

The thematic organisation holds my attention and filters my relationship to individual pieces, but more importantly it asks us to think about processes of relatability and identification in general, and the ways in which we can helpfully address small parts of a question in order to give ourselves time and space to move through them. The balancing of interior and exterior worlds offers up interplays formally and also asks questions about the potential for transformation and the privilege of looking from our own positions through to somewhere else.

Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings will tour to Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 26 May – 16 September and The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2 October – 9 December 2018.

Rebecca Wilcox is an artist living in Glasgow. She works with writing, sound and video and sometimes with their manifestations as performance and installation. Recently she’s made exhibitions and performances for Radiophrenia (Glasgow), Snehta (Athens) and Cooper Gallery (with OaPaO, Dundee). She has published work with Museums Press, Hour Editions and F.R. David. Along with Sarah Rose and Scott Rogers she organises tenletters, a space in Glasgow exploring expanded forms of publication.

[1] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929), in A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, ed. Anna Snaith, Oxford University Press: Oxford 2015, p.76

[2] Chris Kraus, Torpor, Semiotext(e): CA 2006, p.163