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Jill Barker's latest installation at the Ipswich Gallery continues a series of shows that display girls' dresses in various configurations. In Childsplay nine mass produced 'best' dresses for four year olds are suspended within hanging Perspex frames that run parallel with three walls of the gallery space. These collectables from the 1950s are lit so that their transparent fragility and decorative details are gently rather than starkly highlighted. Upon entering the gallery space the dresses appear to be floating in ether-like relics from a barely remembered past. But upon moving closer, as one is compelled to do by this intriguing scene, the dresses are transformed, or rather, disfigured before your eyes. This is because Barker had added her own 'decorative' touches to the lace trimmings, faded whites, and delicate pastel patterns of the dresses. The rather brutal strokes of Elizabethan blackwork embroidery infiltrate their almost transparent synthetic fabrics. And, as the artist's statement informs us, the embroidery is executed in a manner that displays minimal finesse or care, while the various motifs are hardly nursery friendly. The black embroidery is placed haphazardly with little concern for the 'original' design or the tasteful decorative enhancement of the dresses. In fact, from some angles the black stitching looks like an amorphous stain or haze of mildew that has seeped into and marred the delicate, faded fabrics. But when viewed at very close range certain patterns and motifs do materialize out of these formless blemishes. Some emerge as masses of miniature cone-like eruptions, others as row upon row of undulating and circular lines clustered around a pocket, taking over a bod1ce or weighing down a hem. Certainly, the girlish precocity evoked by these dear little dresses sags under the burden of the stitching. Other motifs added by the artist include: a cat with a dead bird trapped in its jaws, Hercules dispatching the lion, and two outstretched hands drowning in a sea of black stitches. Just as the stitching literally casts a shadow over the dresses, these macabre, clumsily rendered motifs inscribe signs of mortality and decay upon these wholesome costumes of childhood.
One way of reading this show would be to see the intrusive alterations enacted upon the dresses as a contemporary gesture of desecration: a negation of the connotations of prissy femininity, dutiful motherhood and Idyllic images of 1950's family life with which the dresses resonate. The surprise and perverse pleasure of the show would then derive from the incongruity of pretty dresses marked by a gesture that diminishes their capacity to carry a particular fantasy of femininity. Rather than ceding all s1gmficance to soc1ology, however, I want to conclude by proposing that the collision between the dresses and the black stitching may also be read as charting the anatomy of an artistic act. What strikes me about the blackwork is its similarity to drawing, traditionally characterised as the creation of form with pen or pencil on a two dimensional surface. Here, though. the artist's act of stitching or drawing with needle and cotton doesn’t begin with a blank surface or start from scratch since 1t modifies ready-made dresses. Additionally, the peculiar comportment of the stitching evacuates any sense of spontaneous creativity on the one hand or (self) conscious volition on the other. The rendering of the stitches is certainly laboured. Determined and even violent, but it is as though these lines and patterns were produced by a hand on automatic pilot. In other words, there is a repetitive obsessiveness about the stitching suggestive of a gesture that at the time of its occurrence was devoid of sense or des1gn. While patterns and recognisable motifs do issue from this mechanical process, their emergence is figured as both fragile and unstable. This mutability is underlined by the technical ineptitude evident in the freehand motifs and the way in wh1ch the massed surrounding stitches besiege the integrity of their form. Moreover, with a short step back from the dresses the supplementary ornamentation disappears into the clotted formlessness of a stain. While I'm not sure that we should equate this version of a 'creative' act with the imaginary innocence of childsplay, I do know that for me the hazy, indefinite marks that punctuate the surface of the dresses exert greater fascination than the motifs they become from another point of view. I also know that seeing oneself in these dresses IS not a pretty picture.