Event review: Tina Crawford’s ‘Unnatural Histories’ at RISE Gallery

By - Thursday 25th February, 2016

Charles Barber went to RISE Gallery and got really into… embroidery

Image by RISE Gallery, used with permission.

If I told you that the modern, cutting edge RISE Gallery is currently holding an exhibition of embroidery, you might think the place had gone a little bit soft. Yet the wonderful embroidered pictures by the artist Tina Crawford are a far cry from the dainty patterns and flowers you can imagine ladies working on in some costume drama. These works are an amazing example of what can be achieved when the humble sewing machine is placed in the hands of an inspirational artist.

The dark and stylish black background and the simple gothic frames are a perfect foil for images that are both delicate and powerful. With black thread on white fabric or card, or white thread on black fabric or card, Tina conjures pictures that look beyond the mere surface of skin. Her fascination is with bone, skeleton and structure. Yet, rather than be limited by the discipline of anatomy, it seems to be this very structure that allows her imagination to take flight.

Some are studies of human skeletal figures but many are of creatures that are both human and animal. Sometimes the creature has an animal face, seeming to define the character of the human skeleton, placed below it. Sometimes, as in a portrait of what looks like a puffer fish, you think you can spot human characteristics such as anger within the animal’s face. My favourite of these figures had the usual bone structure of the human below and the facial skeleton of what looked like a friendly dinosaur above. I had a rather immediate impulsive desire to go home and place it on one of my walls, as I felt as though it would readily become a part of my family… and that after a few too many drinks, I would even end up talking to it.

‘Brian’ was mistaken by many for the figure of Christ. This artist has a sense of fun

All of Tina’s animal/human creatures have common names such as Peter, Vaughn and Clarence. I couldn’t help thinking that if you got to know the artist, you might end up transmogrified into one of her weird and wonderful creatures. She assured me later that the names were chosen randomly and had no particular significance, other than as a bulwark against possibly more pretentious titles, but I couldn’t help thinking that there was a bit more than randomness in the name of Brian, given to a skeletal figure identified (or mistaken) by many as the figure of Christ. This is clearly an artist with a sense of fun and playfulness, but one who also shows us the beauty of structures beneath the skin’s surface.

Nowhere was this perhaps more ably demonstrated than in her copper-coloured polymer sculpture of a snake, placed within a bell jar. We are so used to think of snakes as smooth and slippery, that it was both surprising and pleasing to see the spiky skeletal structure that enables the snake to slither. Most of the exhibition consists of Tina’s sewn pictures but there are also a few small sculptures, two of which are made from thread. The smaller of these, though beautiful, is entitled ‘Buffalo with Wings’, yet I suspect you could spend half a lifetime searching fruitlessly for the shape of either a buffalo or its wings. Far better just to enjoy the joke!

If Croydon seeks a mould-breaking artist, look no further

If Tina’s human/animal images remind us that we are merely animals ourselves, her portraits of human skulls and skeletons bring us face to face with mortality. There is a touching beauty in the shape of our human anatomy and an interesting contrast in our response to images of skeletons connected to each other: we are shocked at the first image of conjoined twins, yet when shown a image of two calf skeletons wound around each other, we immediately see two people making love and the image becomes erotic rather than shocking. Then two images of a terrible degenerative disease, that leads to fibrous tissue such as muscles, tendons and ligaments turning to bone, ‘Fibrodysplasia ossificans studies 1 and 2′ seem almost scientific in their apparent detachment. It is almost as though Tina is constantly asking us to question how we look at things, as well as showing us that there are far more ways than one to do so.

To get some idea of how these different images are created, it’s fascinating to have a look at the video on Tina’s website. There you will see with what skill and dexterity Tina uses her hands to move the fabric and card at different angles to the sewing machine’s needle. Born and brought up in Croydon, and now once again residing in her home town, Tina used to work for the BBC on the children’s art programme. ‘Smart’. You feel, though, that it was only when ill health forced her to leave her job that she found her unique artistic vision. She enrolled on a free embroidery class, and has clearly never looked back.

Many of her designs have been made into prints that have been added to products such as special tea sets, wallets and journals, and if Croydon ever wishes to find an exciting, mould-breaking artist to improve its image, I believe it need look no further. However, as the exhibition at RISE clearly shows, her beautiful and fascinating images are engaging and stimulating enough to stand on their own. Haunting, funny, weird and wonderful: I urge everyone to go and see them.

‘Unnatural Histories’ runs until Thursday 10th March. RISE Gallery is open Tuesday to Friday 10:00am – 6:00pm and Saturday 10:00am – 4:00pm.

Charles Barber

Charles Barber

Adoptive Croydonian, currently trying to publish a book and find gainful employment within the Croydonian urban jungle. Environmental campaigner, Twitter@rainforestsaver, founder of the Croydon Rainforest Club and of the Friends of Whitehorse Park.

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  • http://www.thegreenstoryteller.com Charles Barber

    Tina Crawford has kindly pointed out a couple of factual details, that I was previously unaware of. The so called ‘puffer fish’in my article is in reality a lionfish, and the sculpture entitled ‘Buffalo Wings’ is in fact a representation of conjoined calf heads, so there is after all a bovine connection.

  • Tina crawford

    Charles, just means people have to go and see for themselves!! thank you and glad you enjoyed it, the cynocephaly is a dog headed human. I’m glad people see different things in the work