*Featured photo: Little Microbe, 2021. Scuba and recycled fibrefill. Image courtesy of the artist
A multidisciplinary artist, Janet Currier, studied at the University of Leeds and received her MFA from Goldsmiths University in London, where she currently lives and works.
The starting point of Janet Currier’s research and exploration is the everyday life, the inner world, emotions and, more generally, her personal experience. As the artist states, her work is intensely autobiographical but, at the same time, acquires universal significance as it touches upon shared topics such as illness and the body vulnerability, care, motherhood, resilience and transformation.
Currier was a 2017 winner of the Warden’s Art Prize, and her work is held in various private and public collections, including the Goldsmiths College Collection. In 2017 she was awarded the first Elephant Residency at Griffin Studios. In addition, she was recently shortlisted for the Denton Prize.
How did you approach art, and what was your training path?
I’ve been making art since I was small – none of my family was artists, but I had a babysitter who introduced me to painting and drawing when I was very young, and I’ve been making things ever since. I did my BA at Leeds University, and it was a very different art education at the time – strong on art history, critical theory and feminism, and this was very formative for me. I graduated in the 80s with an almost evangelical mission about using my skills in the community. I worked in community and youth arts and later as an artist educator. I only really returned to my own art practice seriously in my 40s, starting my MFA at Goldsmiths College in London when I was nearly 50. I chose Goldsmiths because it had a strong element of critical theory. The issue of context and conceptual content of work has always been really important to me, and I wanted to be somewhere that gave me a framework for academic and theoretical learning that I could integrate into my practice
How and when did you start using the textile medium in your work? How does this material allow you to explore themes and concepts around which your art practice revolves?
I had a toy sewing machine as a child, and my mum made clothes and let me use her sewing machine when I was really quite young. So my sewing started then. I used to make rag dolls and clothes for them. I didn’t have patterns or know what I was doing, and I wasn’t interested in the rules of sewing – it was all very free form, but I loved it. I also made many three-dimensional objects out of paper mache or cardboard. I never saw any of this as art. My education taught me that art was painting, drawing and sculpture. I thought the other kinds of making I did were “craft” and somehow less valid than the drawings and paintings I made.
After becoming a mother, I started working with domestic patterns – baby clothes, curtains, gingham, bedsheets etc. These were the central subject of my paintings. I was interested in the way these patterns operated at an emotional level, at the way they spoke of intimate experiences like sleeping and looking after children and family. For my MFA degree show, I started to print material from my inpaintings which I made up into a seating cushion for my viewing bench. I really enjoyed the sewing process, and it also reminded me of this reservoir of skills I had learned from my mother. Later, that took me to learn how to upholster and use furniture as a framework for exploring the body and the female experience in a domestic context.
I started making freestanding textile sculptures almost by accident. I was installing somewhere where I couldn’t attach a big painting onto the wall and was thinking about Chris Ofili’s elephant dung props and wanted to reference this moment in art history in soft breast-like sculptures that would support my large canvas. I ended up with a pile of them and was really interested in the idea of how they worked as a mass of squishy objects. The work has grown from there – I now have bags of these soft balls in various sizes and materials.
It seemed like a revelation to me to come back to working with textiles again. I feel somehow liberated when I make them. As if they relate to a more intuitive, non-verbal and physical part of me – where I am not thinking, only feeling. I wonder if this is because sewing was a place where as a young girlchild, I was allowed to explore and make without interference – a space that I didn’t feel I had in painting or drawing. Certainly, I feel that when I am making 2d work, I am more restrained and intimidated by the canon of painting. I can get tied in conceptual knots around narrative concerns. Often when I get stuck with painting, I go to making 3d textile pieces as a way of moving myself on and making sense of what I am trying to do.
But the textile work and the paintings and drawings are all very interconnected. My 2-dimensional work either depicts textiles (anything from garments to hospital curtains), and I often
paint on printed polycotton or upcycle old garments into embroidered pieces. When I sew, it feels like a very similar process to drawing now. My sculptures feed directly back into my 2 d work, appearing in the paintings and drawings I make. Many of the drawings feature large fields of repeated marks that are meant to represent stitches. The installation of multiple objects, again, for me, references drawing and repeated mark-making.
Conceptually for me, all of the work is about being a female (and sometimes a maternal) subject. The medium of textiles already, in a way, shorthands a rich and gendered history of making, of being a girl and being encouraged to sew and knit and develop proficiency in these skills. Like pattern making, for me, sewing is a profound metaphor for “the work of mothering”. Like affective labour, sewing can be boring and monotonous and very poorly paid, but it takes incredible skill and dexterity to execute.
The use of fleshy, repeated, interlocking and squashed body forms in small spaces are a central aspect of your work. What do these sculptures tell about, and what are they a metaphor or representation of?
For me, they work on a lot of levels. The forms are meant to represent the physical experience of having your body squashed and confined in medical processes. Still, they are also about how as a female subject, there is a feeling of being made smaller or having to fit into a confined space and of not taking up too much room – physically, emotionally, psychologically, and professionally. I love the process of installing them because I never actually know how they are going to work. There is a lot of physical toil in making the installation but also a kind of intuitive working out about how to make them come together as arrangements. So I think there is also something that I want to celebrate about the way, as women, we have to think on our feet, improvise and be resourceful to make things work in our lives. There is also something about resilience in the works. I entitled the first two installations Pushback – which has a kind of double edge – but is essentially about resisting and fighting back against something rigid and oppressive.
How autobiographical is your work?
The work is mostly very autobiographical. For me, making work is a really unique and important space where I can work through and process the things that happen in my life. I make no apology for this nor for the emotional content of the work. I believe that the personal is always political, so it must follow that my experiences will be shared by others. When I work them through, maybe on a psychosocial level, I am digesting something for other people too. But also, I hope that what I am exploring or expressing is something that the viewer can relate to and that resonates with them. My work is about everyday things that are familiar to most of us – the experience of illness, and medical treatment, leaking and failing bodies, the messiness, toil and wonder of being a mother, and the stress of having to hold it all together in a very precarious world.
Just one more little squeeze please Louise. Can you tell us about the genesis of this work? Why this title?
This work had been in my head for a long time, and there will be another iteration of it soon involving more furniture! I wanted to make an explicit reference to the experience of having a mammogram, but also the idea of the subject being hemmed in and the attempt to contain somehow failing. So it was important that the forms were also almost sliding out of the cupboard, making the container unstable, as if everything was about to fall out and collapse.
The title is a bit of a push-pull. People often talk about Louise Bourgeoise when they see my work, and she is definitely an important influence, so I wanted to meet that reference head-on with the title. As for the “Just one more little squeeze please” part, on the one hand, I was imagining as the voice of the sonographer tightening up the mammogram plate (which is a very raw, unpleasant and painful experience), but on the other, I was thinking about #Metoo and the experience of male coercion that is sadly so familiar to so many of us.
Are there any contemporary artists that you feel are close to your research and language?
It’s a very exciting time in the arts. There seems to be an explosion of artists working in textiles and ceramics, and the painting scene also feels really lively right now. It seems easier to find artists who are also exploring maternal and female subjectivities and the themes that I am working around. I love Hermione Allsopp’s deconstructed upholstered furniture sculptures and the way they express something about a kind of constrained femininity in a spectacular way, for example. I admire Alice Mahler’s work, Kinke Kooi’s paintings, and I am a big fan of Ellen Gallagher. I really enjoyed Lubaina Himid’s recent show at the Tate in London. It made me rethink narrative painting and the history and use of textiles in particular. Emma Talbot is another big influence. She also works across the mediums of watercolour and textiles. The way she explores narrative and her lived experience are really inspiring and innovative.
I am very lucky to have a great network of artists here in London who, although maybe not working in exactly the same area of research or language, definitely influence and feed into my work. This feeling of community and potential for cross-fertilisation and community is really important to my practice.
Is there a project, a work that is in your thoughts and you haven’t had the chance to make yet?
I have been thinking a lot about making rooms as a way of bringing drawing/painting and sculpture into one work. I am always struggling with finding a different kind of narrative structure in my work – and it feels like making assemblages might be a way to open things up and somehow say more without the work becoming too didactic. So I have finally started making wallpaper designs that I have been thinking about for a long time. I have plans for more upholstered works and a pile of rescued furniture in my shed that I need to work on. I am working toward a solo show next year, so there’s a lot to do!