The most influential example of the pleat in mid-20th-century couture was undoubtedly Christian Dior’s silk ‘Bar’ suit. Launched in 1947 as part of the designer’s début collection – promptly dubbed the ‘New Look’ by Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow – it marked a shift from postwar austerity to opulent femininity. In 2007, Alice Channer titled her series of room-height works ‘New Look’: elegant and poised, a length of pleated fabric – about a hand-span wide – curves down from the ceiling and trails neatly along the floor. The young London-based artist tells the story of Bridget Riley, who, on the way to an opening in New York during the mid-1960s, was horrified to see an Op art-printed dress displayed in a shop window. How would people ever be able to look at her paintings again? Channer is clearly working with this in mind: as with Now-In (2009), a pair of works from the ‘Scarf Drawings’ series, and Peach New Look (2007), her titles often point to the marketing of the à la mode; to how the sense of ‘the now’ (as well as the past) is both tailored and sold.
Many of Channer’s sculptures and works on paper relate to the wearing and display of clothing or personal adornment. (Fittingly, Showreelproject.com, the Milan space that hosted her most recent solo show, comprises a disused shop-front – what would Riley think?) From the pleated hanging pieces and snaking lines of stretched bronze bangles to drawings traced around a patterned scarf, Channer’s work often alludes to the characteristics of clothing and is littered with limb- or body-sized gaps. Though sometimes large, these works never engulf the viewer: none are freestanding and they are usually made from either paper or fabric – their concern is a poised sense of form rather than brute weight. (Channer, who graduated in sculpture from London’s Royal College of Art in 2008, refers to the metal brackets in the hanging pieces as ‘inverted plinths’.) Barry Schwabsky has noted that Channer ‘seems to be dressing the architecture’, and her approach certainly suggests that she draws an analogy between buildings and bodies. The fabric pieces, for example, are re-cut depending on the size of the gallery, expanding or contracting so as to fit its height. This isn’t just a case of the viewer (or artist) activating the exhibition space; it is something more domestic, to do with lived experience. To ‘dress’ a room – rather than to fill it, say, or to leave it empty – is to alter one’s relationship to it, to treat it like a person.
In a short essay she wrote about Barbara Hepworth’s garden in St Ives (published in The Coelacanth Journal last year), Channer noted how, in photographs of the sculptor, ‘it is as if she is actually “wearing” her work’ – a sense that was echoed in the title of Channer’s 2009 solo show in London at The Approach, ‘Worn-Work’. The large wall pieces included in the exhibition were made from layers of paper to which the artist had applied thin stripes of water (Seersucker, 2009). This has the effect of stretching and contracting lines of the surface, catching the light in the subtle crinkles – pleasingly, these all-white pieces are almost impossible to accurately photograph, spurning mechanical reproduction for required presence. Though mostly sculptural, Channer’s work is often involved with the action of drawing, but rarely in the sense of mark-making on a flat plane. Her additions more frequently infuse the surface – as with Seersucker, or the ‘Scarf Drawings’, in which cigarette ash is rubbed in – and only disclose themselves close-up. Using discarded cigarette butts sets up another type of intimacy, redolent of late-night – perhaps even a little faded – glamour. (It’s worth noting that, for the carefully directed premiere of Dior’s ‘New Look’ collection, models were instructed to knock over ashtrays with their pleated skirts.)
While Channer’s work is full of care for the limits of the exhibition space – tailored to its walls, or cut to fit its ceiling – it also points beyond it, to the events and openings that surround the exhibition. This, however, is usually easy to miss. At the private view of Channer’s solo show, ‘That Make-Up Some Things’, at Associates in London three years ago, I certainly didn’t notice that someone was wearing a dress whose pattern was the basis for one of the exhibition’s spectral prints. I was closer to the mark second time around, at ‘Worn-Work’ last summer. On the window sill of the first-floor gallery space, which is above a pub in east London, two tall glasses were placed side by side. Scanning the list of works, I realized that they weren’t mentioned, yet instead of returning them to the bar – from where they might have strayed – I let them be; they seemed like a good fit. Visitors to the opening of ‘Took My Hands Off Your Eyes Too Soon’, a group show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York in 2007, in which Channer was participating, would perhaps have had to look harder. If they had an eye for detail, though, they may well have spotted that one guest was wearing a 1965 Bridget Riley dress.
Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK, a contributing editor of frieze and a co-founder of Open School East. His book, School: Conversations on Art & Self-Organised Education, will be published by Sternberg Press this summer.
First published in Issue 129