A place where making meets mathematics

Exhibition Review by Glenn Adamson, Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Crafts - The Magazine for Contemporary Craft Nov/Dec 2012 pp52-54

Beauty is the First Test - Contemporary Craft and Mathematics

Pumphouse Gallery, London (and touring 2013)

12 September - 25 November 2012

Curated by Liz Cooper

What curator wouldn’t want to do a show at the Pumphouse Gallery? Though not the most trafficked art venue in London, it’s a terrific space. Nestled in a leafy bit of Battersea Park (not far from the Royal College of Art’s south campus), the building is stamped on its front like a sealed envelope with a big ‘VR 61’. That would be for ‘Victoria Regina’ of course, and ‘1861,’ the year in which it was erected to house a coal-powered steam pump that fed the park’s water features. Today, the vertical shaft of the structure is used to house four galleries, each of very tight plan, in a neat stack.

The current show in this eminently Victorian structure is, appropriately enough, inspired by the well-known connection between the great Victorian mathematician Charles Babbage (who designed the world’s first computer, the Difference engine), Ada Lovelace (his mathematical consultant, and the daughter of Lord Byron), and the Jacquard loom (whose punch card system Babbage adopted).

Liz Cooper, the curator of Beauty is the First Test, finds in Babbage’s and Lovelace’s work a precedent for contemporary work at the intersection between maths and making. (The show’s title turns out to be a quotation from mathematician G.H.Hardy, who thought that no really good equation could be ugly.)

As the most obviously mathematical of the crafts, textiles are much in evidence. That is not a new theme, as anyone can attest who remembers the wonderfully kooky Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef at the Hayward Gallery a couple of years back. By comparison, it’s a little disappointing that the textiles here present the theme so straight. Block composition, serial progressions and dynamic symmetry are the order of the day.

It’s always nice to see the Bauhaus-tinged work of Ann Sutton MBE, a justly celebrated figure in the history of British weaving. Little can be said, too, against Michael Brennand-Wood’s regulated explosions of colour, the diaphanous laser-cut silks of Janette Matthews, or an impressively constructed rewoven weave of Laura Thomas. But in the context of this show, they feel like demonstrations of the exhibition’s premise rather than unexpected departures. The madcap energy of the Hayward show is sorely missing.

For the most part, the same is true elsewhere in the show. Sculptures in glass and wood by Suresh Dutt capture the cold abstraction of mathematics, but not its potential for vertiginous complexity. (Images in the brochure showed related works photographed in urban spaces, which I preferred - his forms seem to need a contrapuntal context.)

Peter Randall-Page contributed a series of gentle drawings in burnt sienna reminiscent of Rorschach blots, and a small maquette for his monumental granite sculpture Seed, a permanent installation at the Eden Project in Cornwall. His work has a charming pastoral lilt to it, and is a welcome nod to the ancient origins of mathematical inquiry in the close observation of nature. But again, the work felt a bit safe. After all, when the Pythagoreans begun thinking about numbers in Classical Greece, their philosophical musings teetered on the brink of visionary hallucination. It’s a persistent theme in the culture of mathematics, as viewers of the film A Beautiful Mind will recall.

It was left to one of the participating artists, Lesley Halliwell, to provide this crucial element of destabilisation. She was the discovery of the exhibition for me, all the more impressive for contributing two projects of very different character and scale. First was a set of bank envelopes, used as the ground for Owen Jones-ish drawings of Islamic tile patterns rendered in ballpoint and Tipp-Ex. That may sound banal, and it sort of is, but that’s also sort of the point. The remnants of junk mail culture are left intact, imparting an air of vague threat: a transparent window of thin plastic, or a bizarrely Orwellian legend reading ‘you can now pay this bill online... You’ll also find lots of ways to help you be in control of your home life.’ These little works on paper suggest a valiant, obsessive struggle to find beauty in the lest promising of circumstances.

That struggle is brilliantly realised in Halliwell’s other contribution, a radiant drawing rendered with a child’s Spirograph toy. Enormous in scale, vibrant in colour and immaculate in execution, it hangs triumphant in the centre of the Pumphouse Gallery’s only double-height space. Suddenly, an otherwise tidy and reasonable exhibition seems to pinwheel crazily around you. Halliwell reminds us that mathematics has not just given us ways of understanding pattern, repetition and measurement, but also the concept of the infinite.

Exhibition Review by Glenn Adamson, Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Crafts - The Magazine for Contemporary Craft Nov/Dec 2012 pp52-54