CIARA PHILLIPS Phillips Dazzle Ship.jpg
Essay: Declan Long for Edinburgh Art Festival 2016

Photo: Ultra Photography for 14-18 Now and Edinburgh Art Festival

Sight unseen


Look at Ciara Phillips’s Every Woman — her dazzling contribution to the 2016 Edinburgh Art Festival — and what do you see? Firstly and fundamentally, you see a ship: the MV Fingal, a decommissioned lighthouse tender, forty feet across its beam and two hundred and forty feet long. Today moored in the Port of Leith, this Glasgow-built steamship was for many years tasked with delivering supplies and ferrying workers to remote Scottish lighthouses, helping to maintain those essential beacons — those dependably perceptible signals — that warn other ships to steer clear of unseen hazards. In shipping terms — considering both its scale and type of service — the MV Fingal would surely be seen as a modest sort of craft. When in use, no doubt, it was a relatively discreet presence on the Scottish seas. We can imagine it engaged in routine, low-profile transit rather than naval high drama, embarking on regular, dutiful voyages from its bases in Oban and Stromness, Orkney, to rocky outposts in the waters beyond. (At the same time — recalling the title of a song recorded by The Unthanks — we could also speculate on how much it might have meant to some, waiting expectantly at tense or emotive moments, to see ‘the tender coming’.i)
Now, however, dramatically up-cycled as an extraordinary artwork, the MV Fingal becomes something more imposing and spectacular: something we see very differently. For though professional mariners might see it as a relatively unassuming vessel — ‘tenders’ are, in general, supporting players on the sea, chiefly tending to the needs of other, more sizable ships or structures — it is nonetheless a very large work of art. Ciara Phillips’s Every Woman has the conspicuously out-of-the-ordinary stature of large-scale public sculpture; its size alone establishes it as a powerful, impactful visual presence. But in taking on the commission to transform this retired tender as a contemporary ‘dazzle ship’ — responding to a peculiar, recondite piece of naval history, as well as to a wider context of commemoration — Phillips has also been able to produce a work of instantly detectable distinctiveness and vitality. In its startling bespoke attire — the unique, outlandish new livery designed by Phillips, broadly mimicking the flamboyantly bewildering styles of ‘dazzle’ camouflage first tested on ships during World War I — the MV Fingal stands out with bold individuality. Freshly coated with hundreds of litres of sharply contrasting paint colours, it calls for and captures our attention. Phillips has altered the appearance of the ship’s hull and superstructure by applying curving, swooping, criss-crossing bands of black, yellow, pink and blue — and the result is riotously, gloriously cartoonish, giving the boat’s outward bearing an unruly dynamic urgency, even while moored and motionless. Phillips’s radical makeover upgrades the MV Fingal’s seafaring prominence: it is a ‘minor’ vessel that has become radiantly high-profile within its harbour setting.


This shift in position and perception perhaps declares, on one level, a need to re-appraise and re-present what might otherwise hold a secondary classification in our histories or daily practices — a thought consistent with many aspects of Phillips’s ongoing work. In recent years, crucially, she has been committed to experimenting with the medium of print — a form of production long-relegated to second-class status within the hierarchies of art history — developing projects that often explore modes of collective making, while, on occasion, granting renewed, energetic visibility to the activities of under-represented groups and individuals. Melissa Gronlund has noted that Phillips draws on ‘an alternative history of art-making: one that is about collaboration and use-value as much as possession and display’. But Gronlund also, rightly, sees rigour and sophistication in what is actually developed for display, praising the ‘buoyant, raucous or quietly seductive’ range of the resulting work.ii (And how serendipitously prescient the word “buoyant” now seems.) 
So, for instance, the main work of the Workshop (2010-ongoing), commissioned by London’s Showroom gallery, centred on a screen-printing process in which Phillips helped members of the group ‘Justice for Domestic Workers’ to produce idiosyncratic and eye-catching protest banners. The Workshop space itself was set up as a visually arresting installation: a studio environment decorated with serially repeating photographic imagery, intricate patterns of geometric forms and fragments of text — including the statement ‘new things to discuss’, a proposition which, depending on circumstances, could seem either optimistic or ominous. In a similar vein, Pull Everything Out at Spike Island, Bristol (2012), paid tribute to the California-based designer, activist and educator Sister Corita Kent — an often under-valued pioneer of 1960s Pop aesthetics — again by dedicating temporary space to collaborative creation. Kent’s influence has been important to Phillips, helping license a spirit of aesthetic freedom and enlivened engagement between art and the everyday world. As Jan Verwoert has written, Kent’s ‘graphic approach explodes any format’: when she uses text, he says, it ‘stretches, undulates and spreads dynamically across the space’, while her colours are mixed ‘more freely than the most abstract Expressionists and as freshly as the best Pop artist’.iii Learning from such vivacious designs, Phillips cultivates an equivalent spirit of exuberant openness in her ardently democratic artistic endeavours. She uses the repetitive possibilities of print to enable subjective and collective creative discovery, but also to make viewers look and look again at accumulating and adjusting configurations of image, text, line, shape and colour. With great practical and compositional skill, she brings diverse interests and identities — including, on occasion, more personal concerns and inclinations — into striking, distinctive scenarios of public visibility.


Looking again at Every Woman, thinking of it as a work which values the marginal and the minor in elevated terms — while doing much else besides — I find that a number of other seafaring artworks float into view. I’m reminded, for instance, of Ghost Ship (1999) by the Irish artist Dorothy Cross: an audacious experiment in public visibility for which Cross entirely re-coated a decommissioned lightship with phosphorescent paint. Over several weeks this glowing boat would sail out into Dublin bay at night, appearing on the horizon as a mysterious, spectral presence. Then there is the beached, broken boat featured in Tacita Dean’s Teignmouth Electron (2000): a strange, trashed trimaran, discovered on the Caribbean island of Cayman Brac, that had once been disastrously sailed by tragic round-the-world race competitor Donald Crowhurst. The sight of this decaying vessel was for Dean, somewhat perversely, an image of ‘welcome neglect amidst the neat housing and air-conditioned world of the ideal holiday location’iv; but it also had ‘at other times, at other angles … the look of a tank or the carcass of an animal or an exoskeleton left by an errant creature now extinct’v. It was an object that, seen in various ways, distinguished itself within its environment: deriving from a different place, seeming to exist in a different time. Dean, like Dorothy Cross, finds tremendous mystery and offbeat beauty in such run-down, washed-up objects. Both, in their own ways, artistically revitalize these disparate remnants of life at sea.
But thinking of such things, I’m also put in mind of a poem by the American writer Elizabeth Bishop (entitled ‘Arrival at Santos’) in which, while describing the experience of landing at a Brazilian port, she articulates an odd admiration for a boat of similar status to the MV Fingal. ‘The tender is coming,’ Bishop writes, and it is ‘a strange and ancient craft, flying a strange and brilliant rag’. This twice-identified ‘strangeness’ in one small ship’s demeanor is intriguing — and the phrasing sets up an ambiguous connection, not only with the non-descript appearance of multiple nearby boats (the ‘twenty-six freighters waiting to be loaded with green coffee beans’) but also, perhaps, with the surrounding harbour landscape:

Ports are necessities, like postage stamps, or soap,

but they seldom seem to care what impression they make,
or, like this, only attempt, since it does not matter,
the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps—
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter

do when we mail the letters we wrote on the boat … vi

These manifold ‘necessities’ may merit re-appraisal too: places, objects, routine communications, appearing and disappearing in our lives without much fuss or consequence. A valid poetic ambition might be to somehow retrieve them, to celebrate them in all their apparent inconsequentiality and fugitive, chaotic multiplicity — bringing them into aesthetic high-definition, seeing them differently.
One corresponding quality of Ciara Phillips’s achievement in creating Every Woman is the care taken in setting up a situation in which an ordinary ship is ‘made strange’: it is promoted from the humdrum to become something extravagantly exciting. We recognise that it has been visually enhanced to an extreme degree, with extreme effects — and that it will make, against the backdrop of familiar port surroundings, a profound ‘impression’. (In passing, it is perhaps worth noting that in a maritime context Bishop’s word ‘impression’ could recall the related term impressment, referring to the practice of enforced recruitment that once took place at ports — an etymological echo that might remind us of the frequently assertive character of such places, despite their ‘unassertive colours’.) But as we celebrate the vivid appeal of Phillips’ work — considering the ways in which this present-day dazzle ship impresses — it is important to once again acknowledge her interest in what evades our immediate gaze. Within this situation of intensified, activated visibility, Phillips is also alert to the invisible, and sensitive to the inevitable uncertainties of seeing. With Every Woman, as with a great deal of her work, she dutifully tends to the unseen.


Dazzle ships were designed to deceive. Their incredible, zig-zagging, this-way-and- that-way patterns were created to frustrate straightforward seeing: giving the impression that a ship was moving in multiple directions simultaneously. The dazzle camouflage — trialled as a radical, speculative solution at a time when the British fleet was experiencing devastating, day-by-day losses during the First World War — fragmented the perceived form of a vessel at sea, decomposing its recognizable appearance into an already-exploded set of intersecting swirls, slices and shapes. So, as the plan proposed, a ship’s orientation, trajectory and speed would become extremely tricky to track: the ‘image’ of the ship couldn’t be stabilized and, thus, accurately targeted in the sights of the enemy. Adorned with their individual dazzle designs, ships would become both seeable and unseeable; they would be made strange.
There are, right away, tempting analogies here to the aspirations and achievements of artists. What we often admire in visual art is a combination of captivating and enigmatic appearance. The experience of viewing art can involve the thrill or anxiety of a specific, surprising encounter, along with the disconcerting awareness of having discovered something beguilingly elusive and cryptic. (Equally, there are times when faced with an image or object that we can’t quite ‘capture’, we sense that we are, somehow, missing something.) Art, of various kinds, can both dazzle and disappear. Art that we repeatedly return to — or in some way successfully participate in — can seem special, singular and utterly specific as a worldly phenomenon. Yet as we look again (or think again) we might also find it to be multi-directional, always-in-motion, differently positioned depending on our point of view. Noting related tendencies in Ciara Phillips’s style of screen-printing, Moira Jeffrey has hailed the degree to which she ‘makes print feel simultaneously static and moving … immediate and mysteriously esoteric’vii. But we could add that, in following paths that are variously process-based or exhibition-based, subjective or collaborative, dependant on personal motivations or public situations, Phillips keeps her operating concept of art in productive motion. The outline forms of her art are coherent and clear, but capable of shift-shifting.
These leaps between the design principles of dazzle ships and the experience of art are perhaps made more plausible by pointing out that the idea for the former is generally attributed to an artist: the marine painter and Royal Navy volunteer Norman Wilkinson. Though others had attempted to convince British military chiefs of the merits of such bizarre notions (a zoologist named John Graham Kerr had, for example, pitched a version of the plan to Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty), it was Wilkinson’s arguments for the dazzle strategy, formulated from a painter’s perspective, that eventually convinced naval strategists. Much later, a more well-known artist would claim credit too: on seeing varieties of camouflage in 1938, Picasso declared (with typical modesty) that these perception-and-deception tricks originated in Cubism: its convulsive challenge to representational conventions having forever changed the visual ‘composition’ of the world. For Ciara Phillips, however, a vital factor in reflecting on this art-camouflage connection is the need to recall other, less definitively ‘authored’ contributions to the dazzle scheme — so bringing into historical visibility a realm of under-acknowledged artistic participation. In order to develop designs for the dazzle ships, Wilkinson established a dedicated studio in a basement room of the Royal Academy in London — and in this space a team of artist-workers collaborated to undertake research, draw experimental patterns and construct models. A significant majority of these creative contributors were women, but despite their profound influence on the entire dazzle ships project, they have, as artists and individuals, largely disappeared from historical sight. In one remaining photograph of the ‘naval camouflage unit’, held in the archive of the Royal Academy, nine women are shown at work in the studio; each seems deep in concentration, absorbed by the drawing and making process. There is little background information available to accompany the photograph; the women’s names are not given.
Phillips’s Every Woman is partly named in tribute to these — and other — neglected women war artists ix. As a component of the design, the words of the title appear on the ship too, but they are not immediately legible. Rather, they feature within a morse code message that Phillips has imprinted onto the boat’s bow. This is the enigmatic, aphoristic statement ‘every woman a signal tower’, a slogan that has been prominently visible in Phillips’s work before. Drawn from another relic of an earlier seafaring era, Phillips’s motto and title arise from a dual act of appropriation and abrogation. Her source in this instance is a guidebook outlining the principles of a pre-semaphore system of at-sea communication known as ‘the homograph code’, its basis a type of bodily sign-language, summed-up in the author’s phrase ‘every man a signal tower’. Phillips has amended the ‘homograph’ definition, re-casting an historically skewed, patriarchal foundation for communicating and seeing. The coded message, ‘every woman a signal tower’x, therefore becomes, in the context of the dazzle ship project, a discrete call for heightened historical visibility. It is a low-key declaration, within a high-profile project, pledging commitment to renewed, expanded conditions of visibility.

Declan Long

i The Unthanks album is Here’s the Tender Coming (2009). The ‘tender’ referred to in the song is one that arrives to press-gang men into naval duty.
ii Melissa Gronlund, in an essay written to accompany the exhibition Just You at Bergen Kunsthall, 29 August - 19 October 2014.
iii Jan Verwoert, ‘Against Interpretations’, Frieze, November 2012.
iv Tacita Dean, quoted in Tacita Dean: Selected Works - Ausgewählte Werke 1994-2000 (Basel: Museum für Gegenwartskunst, 2000) p.38.
v Tacita Dean, ‘J.G.Ballard’ in Teignmouth Electron (London: Bookworks, 1999) [unpaginated].
vi Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Arrival at Santos’ in Complete Poems (London: Chatto & Windus, 1991; first published, 1983), pp.89-90.
vii Moira Jeffrey, review of There Will be New Rules Next Week at Dundee Contemporary Arts, Scotland on Sunday, 27 July 2013.
viii See Patrick Wright, ‘Cubist slugs’, London Review of Books, 23 June 2005.
ix Another point of reference in the development of the dazzle ship project was the war photographer Olive Edis. In an interview, Phillips explains how she was ‘trying to find out more about women’s work’ and she discovered that Edis ‘had been stationed in France photographing women’s efforts there … she was (I think) commissioned by the Imperial War Museum as the first female photographer to be sent out as a war correspondent.’ The interview is featured on the website of 14-18 Now: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions. Available at: [Last accessed: 10/09/16].
x Further information is included in the 14-18 Now interview.
Essay: Pablo de Ocampo for Cold Friends, Warm Cash at Western Front, Vancouver

Part 1
17 March 2016

We didn't set out to do a project for kids. Though, to be honest, I'm not sure what we did set out to do. It's less a case of not knowing what the exhibition would be, and more about not knowing how it might manifest – what exactly it would look like, and who might be involved in getting to that point. And just so we're clear, I can't say for certain we know what it is just yet. Afterall, the exhibition is only just beginning today as I finish writing this.

What I do know is that I invited Ciara Phillips to make an exhibition at Western Front that would be an iteration of her exhibition Workshop (2010 – ongoing), a project which transforms a gallery into a working print studio. Though the work has taken different shapes and forms since its inception in 2010, at the heart of it is an interest in the process of making together. This particular distinction, of 'making together', stood out for me against over- and misused terms like collectivity and collaboration, works that have, or at least had, a certain moment as buzzwords in everything from art circles to the tech industry. For Phillips, an artist with an ongoing practice both as an individual and as part of collectives, Workshop is a project that explores those parallel pursuits. It's an exhibition that doesn't proclaim the ideas of collectivity and collaboration, it enacts them in its form and structure.

For me, Workshop is associated with my long standing interest in the video and film production collectives of the 1970s: specifically Videofreex, People's Communication Network and TVTV in the US and Berwick Street Collective in the UK. These collectives were largely focused on using video as a medium for social documentary and activism, focusing on labour struggles, elections, prisons, and the work of political organizations like the Black Panthers. By taking advantage of the inherent properties of the medium – the portability and ease of a Sony Portapak video camera coupled with the possibilities for democratic dissemination through broadcast – these collectives' practices considered moving image as both an artistic medium and tool for disseminating information. As collectives, they sought to align the philosophical and political principles of the social movements they documented with both how they made work and the formal and structural qualities of that work.

Like film and video, the history and status of print situates it as an artistic medium as well as a tool for the dissemination of information and ideas. Though Phillips doesn't come to print as a political organizer, her explorations of what it means to work together with a group on a shared outcome resonates for me with these historical examples.

More directly related to print, Phillips' practice speaks to the work of Corita Kent, a Catholic nun who used printmaking and education in concert with her work as an activist in the 1960s. As an activist and educator, Kent used print as a tool to teach and organize, but her work was equally invested in an experimentation with the formal properties of the medium. For Phillips, Kent initially served as a point of inspiration for these formal considerations: from the vibrant use of color to her innovative approach to typography. Alongside this, the ongoing project of Workshop is one that is can be seen as stemming from the lineage of Kent's unique use of art and pedagogy.

Over the six years that Phillips has been mounting versions of Workshop, the focus has largely been on working with adults. With Cold Friends, Warm Cash, the focus of the project turns to kids. Phillips will be working with 6 to 10 year olds in the studio/gallery every week. These sessions will necessarily include some basic instruction on how to screen-print, but aside from that, Phillips isn't entering into the project with a fixed idea of its outcomes. Phillips will work with the kids that attend the studio sessions to develop print projects – posters, publications, textiles – that will be realized together over the course of the show.

Integral to this exhibition is process, and as such, it will be continually made over several weeks – not solely or specifically through kids producing artwork for the space, but through the idea that the production happening in the space is the exhibition. In that spirit, I'll use the platform of this exhibition brochure in much the same manner, and will revisit this text during that time to add more thoughts as the project unfolds. Install 5_v2.jpg
Review: Declan Long on What we recognise in others at CCA Derry-Londonderry

Asked to write a job reference for the industrious Canadian-Irish artist Ciara Phillips, I might choose to praise her as a committed team player. Much of her work to date – centering on the medium of print, which she employs in the production of images, installations, and interactive situations – has been determinedly collaborative. Phillips is a believer in the democratic accessibility of printmaking, utilizing its tools and processes in ways that emphasize open, experimental situations of communal creativity. Her 2013 exhibition at London's Showroom - “Workshop (2010-ongoing),” a project that in 2014 earned her a Turner Prize nomination – included an active screen-printing studio where she assisted the group Justice for Domestic Workers in preparing visually arresting protest materials. Similarly, for “Pull Everything Out” at Spike Island, Bristol, UK, in 2012, Phillips used gallery-based workshops to collaboratively revive the Irregular Bulletin, a journal published by Sister Corita Kent at Immaculate Heart College, Los Angeles, during the 1960s. Phillips's ebullient aesthetic and inclusive ethos have been significantly influenced by Sister Corita's Pop-art design principles; at Spike Island, Phillips's participatory installation was accompanied by a substantial offering of the pioneering nun's cheerfully proselytizing posters.

Since 2002, Phillips has been based in Glasgow, and she has made the most of that city's energetically cooperative cultural spirit. A fixture in her diary over recent years, for instance, has been the regular meeting of Poster Club: a get-together of like-minded artists who take key attributes of the poster as a popular form – its amenability to reproduction and distribution, its manifold promotional and propagandistic purposes, its diverse positioning in public and private space – as the basis of a collective practice. Such ongoing group work signals the extent to which, for Phillips, print is a social medium: a mode of creative labour that benefits from – and builds – interpersonal connections, establishing and sustaining mini-communities.

But even when Phillips works independently – the approach chosen for “What we recognise in others” at CCA Derry-Londonderry – solidarity remains a fundamental motivation. The recent work here focussed on repeated images of the artist's friends: black-and-white photographs, screen-printed onto fabric, then bordered or overlaid with blocks of strong, variously opaque and transparent color. The subjects of the portraits – Ontario-based writer Emily Urquhart and fellow Glasgow-based artist Corin Sworn – are pictured in moments of concentration or contemplation (as certain titles affirm: Corin looking, 2015; Emily reading, 2015). These are images of isolated, self-contained female figures: fond snapshots of admired solo artists. But Phillips positions most of them within differently patterned compositions, serially adding printed strokes, shapes, and layers that obscure, decenter, or break apart the coherent photographic depiction. The dexterously disruptive effect of these works was intensified by the dispersal of duplicate (but uniquely amended) images throughout the CCA's two adjoining galleries. Phillips's friends were here thus seen both in partial and plural ways: Each photograph was a distinct but incomplete element within a wider, intricately overlapping visual arrangement. There were scattered fragments, but also points of connection. Several screen-prints on paper anticipated or echoed details we found at other points in the exhibition. Two large-scale wall paintings (both titled Forms we recognise, 2016) – variegated, intermittently interrupted planes of cyan and orange – provided a backdrop for framed or adhesive-mounted pieces, matching here and there the precise colours that caught the eye elsewhere. In work that is, in part, about studying artists at work, such pronounced formal connectivity surely reasserts Phillips's core relational values – even if, from time to time, we might detect lingering uncertainty about how to successfully relate to others, or how to be productively alone.
Review: Nathan O'Donnell's review of What we recognise in others at CCA Derry~Londonderry

Ciara Phillips’ work is founded upon a belief in printmaking’s potential for political activation. For previous exhibitions, including the 2014 Turner Prize-nominated ‘Workshop (2010 – ongoing)’ at the Showroom Gallery in London, this has been effected through collaboration. She has invited other artists, designers, and community groups to participate in producing prints, creating process-based, politicized work that builds upon long-standing connections between politics and print-making.

For ‘What we recognise in others’, at CCA Derry-Londonderry, Phillips presents a more traditionally conventional solo show. Several large works, screen-prints on linen or paper, are hung around the gallery, incorporating photographic images, bold text, and layers of block bright colours in abstract forms. They bleed into the walls, on which are painted vertical floor-to-ceiling strips of graded colour (one wall sea-green to azure, the other baby pink to bright neon), dotted with precise white shapes like scattered, incomprehensible icons. The first impression is of a sort of constructivist parade: bright abstract forms, black and white photographic reproductions, and the joyous extension of the work over the walls of the gallery. Closer inspection reveals a more composed, less univocal arrangement. Strident codes of composition and colour belie a muted, deliberately unyielding quality to the work.

In what seems an extension of the collaborative dimension of her previous output, almost all of the large works incorporate images of other female artists at work: one reads on a laptop, another takes photographs, a third simply sits looking out of a window. None of these women face the camera. They are absorbed in their pursuits, refusing identification – suggesting, maybe, that such absorbed, reflective work might be the true radical gesture in contemporary context. They are further obscured by their presentation, the photographs mediated through layers of bright block colour or set behind text. Some of the images are reproduced and repeated across different works, forming disorientating motifs and misleading codes. This is a show full of scrambled ciphers.

On one of the taut linen canvases, obscuring yet another female figure, three uneven shapes suggest the Irish tricolour. (This is no accidental or token gesture. Phillips, a diplomat’s daughter, born in Canada and raised all over the world, considers nearby Buncrana, in Donegal, home: one solid navigational point in a peripatetic childhood.) Pasted over the disassembled flag, in bold white capitals, is a phrase which recurs elsewhere in the exhibition, and gives this work its title: ‘every woman a signal tower’. The words reformulate the proposals of a Royal Navy lieutenant, Sir James Spratt, who in 1808 devised a system of semaphore whereby, with the aid of a handkerchief, the human body could become a maritime signalling device. Such metaphors of navigation and semaphore are anything but incidental in an exhibition which reflects upon the interplay of activism and representation; an exhibition in which the refusal to mediate becomes itself a subtle act of resistance. Phillips reclaims this system of embodied sign language, creating subtle coded interrelations between the bodies of her subjects, producing a charged non-declarative semaphore of female identity. You_v2.jpg
Essay: Melissa Gronlund for Just You at Bergen Kunsthall

In 1920s Soviet Russia under the New Economic Policy (NEP), a number of Constructivist artists expanded their efforts into the realm of making useful items for purchase by consumers. Aleksandr Rodchenko teamed up with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to produce advertisements for tea biscuits, matchbooks and baby pacifiers, and formed a successful graphic design business together. Vladimir Tatlin made novel wood-burning stoves that would heat the home and cook food more safely and efficiently. Liubov’ Popova and Varvara Stepanova designed with new clothes and textiles for the Soviet woman, in styles accentuating freedom of movement, similar to flapper dresses, and with patterns echoing Constructivist geometry – though the cost of such clothing meant they were never produced on a mass scale. These projects were part of a general move for all workers to be involved with augmenting and improving daily life, but they also formed part of an attempt to recontextualise the relationship to the commercial object. As the art historian Christina Kiaer has written in a survey of this moment (Imagine No Possessions), the artists involved in these endeavours were trying to create a relationship not structured by a capitalist desire for possession, but rather a socialist relation, where one could be a ‘comrade’ to the object. The writer Boris Arvatov theorised the conceptual shift. ‘Although mordantly opposed to capitalism and vehemently Marxist in his training and sympathies,’ Kiaer writes, ‘Arvatov recognized the affective power of the mass-produced objects of modernity, proposing instead the idea of a socialist object as a “co-worker” as a response to the power of the commodity fetish under capitalism.’

Thus though it is well-known that the Constructivists made these applied objects, the full scope of the experiment is often overlooked – even though its concerns resurface, organically, throughout twentieth century art and in today’s. Transplanted into the art world, the idea of making a ‘socialist’ or ‘comrade’ object is nothing less than an affront to the entire economy of art as it has solidified in the West: it suggests not an economy of scarcity but one of access; not one of possession but of participation. The idea of a ‘comrade object’ is also one way of thinking into the practice of Ciara Phillips, whose work entails buoyant, raucous or quietly seductive screen-prints and photography; as well as activities such as a Poster Club in which a group of artists collaborate in the design and making of screen-printed posters; the use of the exhibition as a site of production; and even, like Popova and Stepanova, the design of wearable clothes that ultimately prove too expensive to produce. Phillips navigates the world of commercial and institutional exhibitions, but also, perhaps because since graduating from her MFA, she has been based in Glasgow – a city that has kept alive the spirit of artistic collaboration and has a strong non-commercial artistic infrastructure –, she has also worked to reconsider the way that art can exist among people. ‘What I like about the screen-print,’ she has said, referring to one of her signature media, ‘is that it’s a democratic art form. It’s a process that can be shared, and you can use the process to develop ideas for the work.’

In the project ‘Workshop’ (2010–ongoing), for whose iteration at the Showroom in London Phillips was nominated for this year’s Turner Prize, she uses the exhibition site as a temporary print studio, making prints in collaboration with invited artists and other guests who wanted to participate in or learn about screen-printing. (‘Workshop’ was also previously realised at the Hamburg Kunstverein and at Spike Island, Bristol.) The making becomes the product, and the process itself is put on display. The idea of process being legible in the final product can also be glimpsed in Phillips’s tendency to reuse different images and motifs in different forms, such that one can see threads of her thinking running throughout her practice. The central image of the exhibition, ‘Just You’, is a photograph taken by Phillips of a woman with her hair up and her back turned to the camera, hands on hips. It shows up a number of times in the show, cropped at different heights – just above her waist, just below her neck – as if the images were part of a film reel which has been cut up and displayed. (Phillips designed the woman’s dress as a uniform for a bar in Zürich, in collaboration with the graphic designer Marie Lusa and dress designer Kathrin Baumberger – this was the dress, sadly for the Zürich bar, deemed too expensive to produce on a larger scale.) Other earlier works of Phillips’s also engender this film reel effect, such as the collage Things put together (2013), which repeatedly shows a close crop of a hand dangling down, and again an image – though another – of a woman from the back with her hair up, arms also slightly akimbo. These images appear, interspersed with others and cropped at different heights, in seven columns along the length of the wall. Coloured streaks run down and across the wall-size collage, as if flares of light exposure on the film. Shown in black-and-white, the fabric pictured in the image of the sleeve appears rough – underscoring the sense of this being an older image, belonging to a different time, of pre-mass manufacture clothing and celluloid film strips. The impression, however, is false. While I would venture to say it’s the norm among artists to use found photographs, Phillips takes most all of her images herself, and they often feature her friends. This suggests something important about the work: it is about the spirit of making in the now, of things coming together across a picture field or via processes of manufacture.

In ‘Just You’, the collage Things I associate with you (2014) repeats elements from Things put together, particularly of the weathered black-and-white photograph – here of the top of a bottle – which is given, via the real inclusion of a woven woollen blanket, a more direct sense of tactility. The blanket imparts not only a depth to the work in terms of texture, but again suggests the human element of making that precedes these final products. This is heightened by various clues to its making that remain palpable: the image has been printed onto a piece of canvas that has been taken off its frame, so that the fabric falls unstretched – not taut, like a normal canvas – with the staples that held it to the frame still visible. And in the same way that a film reel shows a succession of many moments, Things I associate with you gives the impression of being both a before and after: a document of its making as well as a finalised, carefully considered portrait – perhaps even closed off to the viewer – of items that link Phillips to the ‘you’ of the title.

But just who is this ‘you’ of the title? The exhibition ‘Just You’ has a quieter, more intimate quality than some of Phillips’s previous work, signalled above all by the title with its understated but exhortative quality, singling out a ‘you’ from the many people whom an exhibition might be for. Phillips says the exhibition title is meant to address the viewer as a dedication, which is fitting for a show that is very much about a close-knit interaction among different images and textures: the abstract patterning made by repeating a mistake in the screen-printing process that created both the black-and-white and green wall hangings; the blindingly bright circles of the image overlaid on one of the hangings -a ceiling light photographed directly from below - which is echoed in both the circles on the pattern of the woman’s dress and in the round splotches of ink from the printmaking process; the use of texture across all of the images. ‘Just You’ ties its elements together so that they function almost as a single work. This extends even to the media – screen-printing and photography have much in common with each other: they are both mechanical means of mass reproduction, and both are now archaic, artisanal processes attached to, perhaps ironically, economies of scarcity. It is interesting to see an artist well known for her collaborative work in posters and other means of mass production switch tack, with many of the same materials, to conjure a sense of contemplation and quietly achieved intimacy: the illusion – and it is an illusion – that the exhibition is speaking just to, of all people in the world, you.

If the title ‘Just You’ connotes a sense of personal address, the title Springtime will never be the same (2011) conjures some of the riotous qualities of other works of Phillips’s – which often use a bright palette of blues and pinks, marshaled in bold shapes and squiggles. Springtime will never be the same is the second part of the slogan ‘Sisterhood is blooming: Springtime will never be the same’, borrowed from the Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective in 1968, which Phillips used for a screen-printed poster in a Frankfurt show. This reference to the revolutionary history of screen-printing was also at play in the show organized at Spike Island in which Phillips worked with the estate of the late artist Sister Corita Kent, who was famous for her bright, graphic screen-prints that turned corporate slogans into messages of peace and love. The exhibition, at Spike Island in Bristol, showed seventy of Kent’s posters, and Phillips set up a studio and printing workshop in the gallery to create a print project inspired by Irregular Bulletin, the publication Kent worked on when she was the head of the art department at the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles.

Through exhibitions and references such as these, Phillips thus draws an alternative history of art-making: one that is about collaboration and use-value as much as possession and display. If, for the Soviet Constructivists, the move to participate in the production of commercial objects – the NEP signaled a pause in the march towards communism and a brief, strategic return to commerce – was motivated by a desire to turn their hands and abilities towards the production of a new socialist way of living, one that redeemed many of the failures of life in the past (poverty, poor health and hygiene, sexism), then the history, particularly of radical screen-printing, that Phillips taps into is oppositional. Poised so in organization – working as members of collectives rather than individuals – and content, the history of screen-printing in the West is countercultural; screen-printing machines – which were at once simple to operate and capable of mass reproduction – were often used in the service of leftist, anti-capitalist or other civil-liberty causes. Today, however, that role of dissemination has been taken up by the internet, with sites such as and the widespread use of social media. Screen-printing, again like analogue photography, has quickly moved from an emblematic process of modernity and industrialization to its opposite, a craft - an outdated, labour-intensive mode of producing what can now be more easily produced elsewhere.

It is in this change that the idea of the comradely object returns: one that channels the desires of capitalism into that of mutual affection – ‘Things take on meaning, become friends and comrades of the person, and the person learns how to laugh and be happy and converse with things’, as Rodchenko wrote about the workers’ club he designed in Paris. Socialist objects were things brought down to human scale – brought, notably and contradictorily, out of inscrutable industrial production and into a legible mode of mechanical production – that could speak with, engage and aid the person on their path towards a better existence. The motivations behind the anti-industrial stance glimpsed in Rodchenko’s conception of the socialist object can also be seen in his sculptural constructions, which open up their inner mechanical workings for the viewer to see and understand. A similar gesture to ‘make it clear’ and ‘open it up’, as Rodchenko wrote about the socialist object, is found within Phillips’s desire to stage her own processes of working as the exhibition itself, as she did in ‘Workshop’ or her collaboration with the work of Sister Corita Kent. This mode of divulging not only demystifies the final product but also allows viewers to touch, feel and use the art object in a way they would not typically. The use of errors as generative modes in her process of working also allows viewers into her work, scaling it down from slick, high-value production to something where her hand and her decision-making process can clearly be seen.

Rodchenko’s exhortation that the comradely object should somehow speak back reverberates particularly in the works that make up ‘Just You’, and the idea of the exhibition posing as a ‘dedication’ to the viewer. Phillips’s use of text in her posters and screen-prints means that her work often does literally ‘talk back’ to the viewer, sometimes in the form of snippets of advice (‘the only rule is work’, ‘start with a practical idea’). Phillips thus twins the history of print-making, with its use of mass-reproducibility for political ends, with the contradictory relationship towards mass production that the Constructivists championed in their comradely objects, which only sometimes achieved the scale of mass reproducibility and more often privileged a human scale that was inherently opposed to mass production in any case. In today’s art world – a predominantly commercial endeavor – Phillips retains a mode of art-making that recalls other possibilities for the relationship between art and its viewer (or user), and mines the particular historical moment of the obsolescence of her medium to instill in her work the sense of a personal relationship between maker and object, and between object and viewer (‘just you’). Intimacy appears with a low tremor in a medium that was about reaching the mass. This exhibition, with its soft colors, seductive imagery a woman showing off her bare neck and recognisable, homelike textures, creates a personal space of reflection within a history that so often catered the other way.
Essay: Lucy Askew for Generation Guide

Ciara Phillips works mainly in printmaking and her approach is expansive and experimental. Her interest lies in both the physical processes involved in printing and the capacity to explore, test and develop ideas through it. Printing requires time, space and sometimes collaboration with others, which for Phillips, distinguishes it from the directness of drawing an image directly onto a page. Printing has also been associated with political and social activism - a tool to call for action. Phillips brings all these connections into play in her art, whether she is working alone or with others.

Phillips uses screenprinting in which ink is pulled over and pushed through mesh in order to transfer and image onto paper or fabric. She exploits the opportunities offered by this method, layering colour with images and working on both small and large scales. A lot of things put together (2013) is a large hanging piece made of five overlapping sheets of printed cotton. Abstract symbols and blocks of colour are combined with black-and-white photographs of figures. This artwork provided a starting point for an extensive work on paper, Things put together (2013). The rhythmic aspect of these compositions is playful, but it also acts to co-ordinate the individual images into a whole, new statement. The titles of the works are drawn from the educator and activist Sister Corita Kent (1918-1986), an American artist whose use of art as an instrument for education and inspiration has been important to Phillips. The idea of ‘things put together’ not only points to the artist’s enjoyment of collage, but is a more general comment about making art.

Phillips has also developed her thinking through projects dealing with collective making. Her Workshop (2010 – ongoing) , held at The Showroom, London in 2013, created a studio within the gallery where she made prints every day, often working experimentally with community groups and other artists and designers. Phillips’s project transformed the gallery into a place for investigation, social action, discussion and debate.
Essay: Oliver Basciano for Funktion / Dysfunktion publication

Flip and reverse

Let’s talk about practice. ‘Practice’ – as both a noun and verb – is one of those words that editors sometimes attempt to scrap from an art critic’s copy, accusing it of being voguish and overused. There are times, however, that the writer should put up some resistance to its dismissal from a text. When it is useful, when the word proves descriptive and conveys something of the artist’s work and working methods. Writing about Ciara Phillips would be one of these occasions. ‘Practice’ suggests that the end results of the Phillips’ work as an artist is integrally informed and wrapped up in the means of its production. It suggests that the art object, even when left to its own devices in the gallery, will nonetheless let slip to its audience the nuances of narrative behind its realisation. The artist’s practice rendered visible. The verb made noun.

Phillips’ screenprints are experiments in formalism, with abstract strokes, patterns and mottled landscapes of ink sitting in tension with clearly defined, symbolically suggestive shapes; figurative motifs; or, occasionally, photographic images. A print of over a metre in height and on paper from the Slippery Under Pressure (2012) series for example, seems to depict an urn. Surrounding the flat shape of this apparent receptacle is a broadly repeated, perhaps modernist, pattern of blue rectangles on green. The green resurfaces within the multifarious palette and texture of the urn however; suggesting a vapourish object that is both made up of its background and distinct from it. It, as is characteristic of Phillips’ work, is a scene that is both a celebration of the print’s flatness, but also, simultaneously, intoxicated with the possibilities of depth and perspective that the viewer can mine the composition for. These varied, layered, markings request one to trace the stages of the artist’s labour and moments of experimentation that went into the work’s production to better understand the dichotomy inherent within the image.

If Slippery Under Pressure (2012) represents the apotheosis of Phillips’ stretch between figuration and abstraction, The Treatment Must Be Appropriate To The Material (2013) is an example of the artist at her most playfully gestural. The edition of two screenprints, monochromatic black and white, sees a wild fashion of mark making, delightfully messy and untamed by form. These broad markings, suggestive of movement and action, echo Phillips’ work on newsprint: characteristically, single, sizable, directional washes of ink, the paper cut down to the silhouette of the print marking. The artist’s use of such mark making heightens the viewer’s awareness of the physical action inherent in her medium; a burlesquing nod towards the performative, albeit painterly, history of abstraction too perhaps.
In directing the viewer’s attention towards the physical action of the work’s production and the intuitive decision-making that leads this (the artist makes no preparatory plans and a work isn’t catalysed by any dogmatic conceptual schema), the artist is toying with the history of printmaking; instigating a subtle, rebuke to Ruskin’s dismissal of the “vile mechanisation” of reproductive technologies in art. A distance is invoked in the works by the means of their production, yet nonetheless Phillips’s authorial voice echoes through.

The artist is present in her more figurative work too. Accompanying a screenprint on cotton – a line of parallel large white circles on a murky blue-purple background – in the 2013 dyptych, Autopy / And more, is a photographic image, screenprinted on paper. In this second plate of the pairing, a woman, her back to the viewer, holds one of the editions of The Treatment Must Be Appropriate To The Material (2013). It’s a neat, self-referential trick, affirming that, for Phillips, the twin tenants of abstraction and figuration are not mutually exclusive. It’s a point raised again through the artist’s reoccurring use of the tick motif, and the character ‘x’. Printing them on posters or banners, Phillips asks us to take notice of both their intrinsic form, and the symbolic, figurative, value that these otherwise indistinctive shapes are loaded with: affirmation, refusal, a kiss, affection, love.

For largely pragmatic reasons, printmaking tends to be a social, and even collaborative, medium. Necessity will require artists to band together to share equipment or studio resources. While this aspect of Phillips practice is arguably beyond her control, it should also be understood as one that nonetheless informs the output. Through the formal staging of an exhibition Phillips often demonstrates this process of making, foregrounding the communal nature of the work’s production. In her 2012 show at Spike Island, Bristol, Phillips shared the gallery space with seventy works by Corita Kent. Kent, who died in 1986, was an American artist and educator and is a mainstay reference point for Phillips. In a side room, Phillips set up a studio and printing workshop, partnering with visiting artists and designers to develop a publication based on Irregular Bulletin, the in-house journal of the Immaculate Heart College during Kent’s time teaching there. Collaboration is at the forefront of Phillips’ works with Poster Club too, a print studio collective the artist established in Glasgow with a bevy of peers. In 2011 the group created work in situ at Eastside Projects, Birmingham, reacting to the space and its visitors. Inviting parallels to one historic purpose of screenprints, as anonymous advertisments or notices, the deindividualisation of practice that these projects allude to, reiterate Phillips’ interest in ideas surrounding authorial distance and the processes of production, a further allusion to the slippage in which the artist places herself in, and out, of the practice.

Oliver Basciano shot 2013-12-16 at 11_17_23.png
Review: Workshop (2010 - ongoing)

Review by Rachel Guthrie - 18 October 2013

Collaboration has become a significant part of contemporary art culture: a significant about-turn on centuries of increasingly individualistic art making that runs parallel to the craft revival of recent years. Collaboration and craft have been picking up pace at all the same places, and the two are unquestionably related. Ciara Phillips’ piece ‘Workshop’ is a show-piece of collaboration today, and the name is both deliberate and defining of the show as a whole.

The opening text speaks of Ciara’s practice and collaboration when it says, ‘Phillips will explore the potential of “making together” as a way of negotiating ideas.’ It’s an eye-opening thought. Through ‘Workshop’, Phillips showcases the potential of teamwork, not to muddle but to multiply creativity. This she does by inviting members of the community, fellow artists and designers, including some who have had contact with The Showroom before, to treat the gallery as a communal printing studio throughout the months of October and November, while the exhibition continues to run. The artist, who acts as a director for the project, predicts the outcomes will be a varied concoction of appearances and purposes: advertising and design, community action and communication, and activism and propaganda.

For now, however, 'Workshop' consists mainly of the thoughts of its initiator. Screenprints made between 2010 and 2013 line the walls of the downstairs open-plan gallery space. From floor to ceiling, Philips’ prints are reproduced as wallpaper. Strips of the work NO/OK – which is presented framed and in its original singular form upstairs – are stacked down and across the walls. This graphic work is a play on words, playing on the transformation from denial to tempered agreement through the switching of an N for a K. Hung in front are four cotton screenprints. The two on the left hand wall are emblazoned with letters spelling T-o D-i-s-c-u-s-s (as it is called) and N-e-w T-h-i-n-g-s (likewise) in a similar fashion to the NO/OK papering. These two pieces, both from 2013, anticipate the arrival of the wholly collaborative part of ‘Workshop’. What Ciara does in part one of the project, is visualise the potential of the project in its second part.

The character of the exhibition is such that if any chance was involved, it seems to have fallen more than a little bit fortuitously into the lap of those at the gallery. The Showroom is a space that is framed by its commercial features. With its wide drive-in door and exuberant yellow walls, its appearance is not far from a car garage. It’s a spacious site for exhibiting art, but it also screams ‘I’m a studio.’ And in equal measure this show exists as an exhibition (showroom), and a workshop.

The space is laid out in a manner that enables the artistic collaboration. The work is distanced from the plush furnishings of fine art exhibiting: plinths are pushed aside in favour of untreated wooden and industrial plastic tables with trestle legs, as one finds in a traditional workshop. In the alcove to the left hand side of the ground floor gallery you can find a table shamelessly laid out with printmakers’ paints and all the tools of the trade.

Likewise, the workshop ethos underpins the work, from factory-line productivity to art that is conscious of its source. We see both these characteristics in prints framed beneath a glass-topped table in the upstairs (studio) space. Presented is the opening page of ‘Irregular Bulletin 53 (July 2012)’ – a newsletter that was published alongside Ciara Phillips and Corita Kent’s show ‘Pull Everything Out’ at Spike Island, Bristol. It reads, ‘Often we may not realise we are building on the ideas of others but when we do know it, it is good to take responsibility to say thank you for the use of the material. Acknowledge that this work has gotten into you and been changed by you and has changed you.’

Quite clearly the artists are advocating selfless collaboration and self-conscious idea sourcing. Walking about the table, an unlabelled print reads like a rally-cry for war, ‘Rise Early Jesse. Pull Everything Out Olivia. Ciara, Be Industrious.’ Anti-competitive, it’s an address to the creative community to keep making, and to do some in tandem.
Review: There will be new rules next week

Review by Moira Jeffrey
Published in Scotland on Sunday, 27 July 2013

Printmaking is back in vogue thanks to the influence of an American nun whose work is at the centre of a new exhibition at the DCA.

If a decade ago you’d asked me to predict which unlikely medium was going to capture the imagination of a new bunch of artists who grew up in the digital age and were educated in an era which might be seen as the high watermark of art theory, I would have openly scoffed if you told me it would be the genteel art of printmaking.

And if you’d then said that a cult figure among such artists would be a long dead American nun whose oeuvre included illustrating religious homilies and encouraging audiences to dress up in coloured tissue paper and recite poetry, well my professional pride would have been on the line.

But then along came artists like Ciara Phillips, an Irish Canadian who, based in Glasgow since she studied for her MFA there, has been quietly proselytizing on behalf of print and rallying like-minded artists into activities like Poster Club, a loose artists’ collective utilising her screen-printing skills for artists of radical bent.

And there is Ruth Ewan, a London-based Scot, who uses print to echo the didactic visuals used by campaigners and idealists from early feminists to the Socialist Sunday Schools that she featured in a highly successful exhibition at the last Glasgow International art festival.

And among the influences on both of these very different artists is a single figure, Sister Corita Kent. Born in 1918, Kent taught at the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, where she spent 20 years as an educator in the art department, as well as taking part in and creating festivals, street protests, religious and political parades.

Trained in art history and printmaking and inspired by the economy and immediacy of the printed word in religious and evangelical traditions, Kent is a figure who both embodied her age and has transcended it. A spiritual mentor, activist and communicator.

A selection of historical works by Kent is at the centre of DCA’s contribution to Print Festival Scotland, a celebration of print and the Impact8 International Printmaking Conference Dundee. The show brings Kent together with a new generation inspired by her, and charts her progress from early tentative works that emphasise extracts from scripture to radical posters against the Vietnam War.

In her later career, Kent left Immaculate Heart and lived and worked in Boston. Her late work, some of which has a little too much of the whiff of the corporate image-maker, had the widest audience. Her most successful work, a commemorative postage stamp bearing the word love, had a circulation of a reputed 700 million.

If these days Los Angeles is seen as having developed a unique brand of pop art in the late 1960s, then Kent’s work is unique in pop art full stop. Fusing the language of advertising and commercial packaging and pop psychology, with a kind of ecstatic evangelism and political activism, it’s noteworthy now for its vibrancy, playfulness and cleverness of communication. Her installations and performances were similarly direct and she encouraged her students to produce happenings, banners and booklets as well as prints and collages. Her art was utilitarian and purposeful, where pop art was studiously neutral, didactic where abstraction was self-contained.

But Kent was no savant. Her graphic work was supported by no lesser design stars than Saul Bass and Charles and Ray Eames. Celebrated 1960s idealists like Buckminster Fuller were inspired by her political and spiritual example.

Of the contemporary artists in this show, it is Phillips who bears the closest relationship to Kent. Last year, at Spike Island in Bristol, she took Kent’s activism to heart and set up an open studio in the venue, producing a magazine Irregular Bulletin inspired by Kent’s. Her own work was shown with Kent’s in what was then the largest show of the US artist’s work to date.

Phillips is a brilliant print maker who imbues the medium with a freshness that is remarkable, in posters, prints and textiles. At Dundee, her vast banners, with repeating motifs of a glass paperweight, a fashion photograph and a circle, are constructed to look like an unspooling reel of film. Phillips makes print feel simultaneously static and moving, machine and handmade, immediate and mysteriously esoteric.

Scott Myles is a cooler figure altogether, playing with print’s ability to seduce and confuse and the politics of scale and context. His work is a reprise of work shown in a previous solo show at the gallery. The text Good Acts Wanted, writ large in black and neon orange, might be a religious injunction or the scribbled note of a would-be pop promoter.

The jaded palate of painter Peter Davies strikes a jarring note in this celebratory atmosphere. Davies is a sly painter of text paintings and graphic imagery, subverting Kent’s style immediacy for a more melancholy tone. His painting Why is British Art so Crap, a colourful text rant about perceived mediocrity of British art, is both an act of rebellion and quiet desperation. Davies’ critique is funny and acute and just occasionally terribly unjust. The quiet implication is his own art is similarly ill-fated.

But for all its enabling activisms, history and hierarchy are not exactly absent in Kent’s art. The work adhered to clear tenets of graphic design and passed on spiritual truths which are sometime old fashioned paternalistic religion in 1960s rainbow garb. It’s notable when you watch a series of short films made at Immaculate Heart by Baylis Glascock, that inspirational as it is, Kent’s art teaching and art making was also highly structured and at times comically rigid.

It’s here we see the difference between generations. At the centre of the show is an installation of Kent’s art department rules. The rules were an open pastiche of the rule, the elaborate discipline imposed for centuries by religious orders, but they still suggested that art was a discipline and artists themselves must be disciplined.

Ruth Ewan’s simple print, made when she worked with children from Menzieshill Primary School in Dundee for her solo show in the city in 2011, was inspired by Dundee’s 1911 school strikes. Kent’s rules state: “The only rule is work,” or “There should be no rules next week.” Ewan’s text print simply states. “Nae Rules.”
Review: Pull Everything Out

Review by Dawn Bothwell - 31 July 2012

In “Pull Everything Out” at Spike Island, Corita Kent's work is presented in a two-person exhibition with Canadian, Glasgow-based artist Ciara Phillips. This exhibition presents three important aspects of Kent's work: showing her creative and innovative printmaking style; her politically charged print work which drew upon the liberating aims of society in the ‘60s and ‘70s; and her influential teaching ideologies.

Corita Kent's (1918-1986) work was iconoclastic while it explored the double meanings held in editorial/graphic layout and drew upon American consumer culture. She worked in parallel to the Pop Art movement, using the new advertising vocabulary which surrounded her. Kent's work was a product of an explosive cultural environment: she was influenced by anti-war, feminist and civil rights movements, while working as a catholic nun during the passing of the Vatican II policies. These policies, which intended to move the Catholic Church closer to modern day society, inspired Corita Kent's ideas on breaking down barriers in teaching and in art practice, drawing inspiration from everything around her. One of her favourite quotations was the Balinese saying: “We have no art we do everything as well as we can.”

Rather than taking the format of a general retrospective, the current exhibition at Spike Island draws upon Kent's progressive and original approach to producing artwork. Her activity bore direct influence upon the Pop Art movement and wider creative circles, questioning the distinctions between art, craft and design practices. She has been cited as influential upon major figures such as Buckminster Fuller and Ray and Charles Eames. Ciara Phillips' work sensitively responds to the stylistic tones in Kent's printed works as she adapts the methods taught by Kent, providing insight for a new audience into her methodology.

In gallery one, two sides of Corita Kent's print-making practice are separated: her politically motivated works and those focussing on word-play, using imagery and text sourced from advertising. Kent's politically sighted works echo society's desire at the time to change social constructs and recognise the value of the individual. She used newspaper imagery of Martin Luther King, victims of the Vietnam War from both sides alongside hand-written transcriptions of work by poets and song writers such as Walt Whitman and Pete Seeger. The political positioning of these works may seem radical considering Kent's vocation as a practising catholic nun; however it is the similarities between her intentions within the catholic sisterhood and those of the social movements of the ‘60s which are made apparent. They draw a human and current course for belief via activism on behalf of social equality.

Past exhibitions have positioned Corita Kent as a subversive character. In 2008 Aaron Rose curated “Sister Corita: Passion for the Possible” at Circle Culture Gallery, Berlin and declared her (and in the same breath, Jesus Christ) a “beautiful looser.” The clarity with which these works are presented at Spike Island draws focus to the honesty of their intent which has sometimes been over-shadowed in their presentation.

The remaining works by Kent in gallery one focus upon word-play and innovations in text, print and found source material. Phillips responds directly to these works, using screen printing and working directly onto the gallery walls. The relationship between print and language is explored by Phillips abstractly: pulling out letters and punctuation, turning language into abstracted symbols and patterns which fill the room. Kent and Phillips' works present the medium of print not as an inflexible method of communication but, when taken into the individual's hands, one with the potential to develop a new physical presence, a visual language that is an extension of the written form. The manner in which this is carried out by both artists is often delicate with traces of the artist's hand present. Drawn and sourced pattern is overlaid with handmade marks, symbols and cut out shapes.

In the second gallery, Phillips is running a print studio in open view to the public. Here she works with invited artists to produce a version of “Irregular Bulletin” - the 'zine which Kent made with her students at Sacred Heart College. This activation of the gallery space places the act of making at the centre of the exhibition, echoing Phillips' ongoing interests in exploring the labels and roles of 'work' and 'labour' and those creating through craft and art practices.

The collaborative works in “Pull Everything Out” return to the process of print-making as a means for the individual to communicate with a widespread audience and express their own individuality, looking to a time when popular culture placed importance upon taking responsibility for your own opinion, disseminating leaflets, attending protests and rallies. The ideas and powerful techniques formed in Corita Kent’s generation, which she used to reform art education in her classroom, carried with them the desire that the next era of education should encourage the individual to challenge everything; asking students and artists of generations to come, to respond and contribute to their own environment and escape the passivity of the past.

Phillips' revival of Corita Kent's teachings directs attention to ideas that are inherent in her own practice. These ideas feel particularly relevant today, as the national curriculum in schools prescribes less and less freedom for creative thought and rigid course structures in universities envelop tutors in paperwork and away from guiding art students. Instead of simply criticising these problems, solutions are presented: the revised edition of Kent's book “Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit” includes a breakdown of chapters as they can be applied to the US National Frameworks and Standards for the Visual Arts. Although not a complete solution perhaps these ideas suggest ways to ensure that creative practice is central to the time which is spent making art in education.
Review: Start with a practical idea in Frieze d/e

Review by Gabrielle Schaad
Translated by Nicolas Grindell

Published in Issue 6, Autumn 2012

Ciara Phillips’s work is devoted to printing techniques, mainly screenprinting and textiles. In this show Start with a practical idea, one was immediately struck by her sparing but deliberate use of the gallery space. There were saturated greyscale screenprints of her own photographs as well as dyed fabrics printed with repetitive patterns or with free-standing geometrical elements. Two lengths of white fabric suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the space bore two patterns: one in black with a simple V-shape, the other multicoloured with diamond-like shapes all over (Very and Colourful, both 2012). The artist also used laths of course-grained wood to print triangular, rhomboid or, in the case of Make space with art (2012), honeycomb-shaped elements on fabric. By contrast, Untitled (2012) – smaller pieces of fabric dyed a bluish-green and printed with yellow and black elements – resembled strips of text.

Phillips hung these smaller pieces on a single wall together with a framed print of a black and white close-up photograph of a painter’s encrusted palette (To make use of, 2012), another banner with floor plans in pink (Focused activity, 2012) and a textile print of the same palette in purple (To make use of, 2012). With this display, the artist reconstructed a kind of mood board and pointed to her interest in the principle of creativity. All of the prints testified both to her mastery of a range of techniques and to their experimental use. Their form developed out of active practice, being neither predefined, planned or obviously designed. For Phillips, it makes as little sense to distinguish between art and craft on the basis of specific sets of tools as it does to draw a clear line between photography and screenprinting. In the exhibition, her cross-media works became signifiers whose content did not coincide precisely with the objects depicted, including a water bottle (As you want, 2012) and a toucan photographed at a nearby garden centre (Someone to talk to, 2012). Instead, these works acted as placeholders for stations in her production process, as examples of the application of a given technique. Subsequently, she installs them in a richly referential setting in which their Arts & Crafts origin can be reinterpreted and reconstructed in intellectual terms instead of being appreciated as simple handwork.

As she has often done before, Phillips developed many pieces for this show in the exhibition space itself, during a residency at the gallery. Rather than being a gesture in the spirit of institutional critique, this production of work in the exhibition space is a way of emphasizing the principles of serial work executed by hand and experienced in practical terms – in keeping with the show’s title. Phillips advocates exercising and honing manual skills and thus counters the current resurgence of deskilling, with its deliberate avoidance of handwork. This position is a distinctive one which places creative-adaptive automatism ahead of analytic consciousness. The message here was not ‘think to create’ but ‘create to think’. edition_v2.jpg
Essay: Ellie Herring for Washington Garcia

Written for Ciara Phillips at Washington Garcia Gallery, October - November 2009

Until relatively recently, it was not considered possible to align the practice of craft with theory. Craft and theory were, in the immortal words of Peter Dormer, like oil and water. Indeed, to place such opposing terms together was to ignore the seemingly obvious truth that there was almost nothing about craft that could be put into words. Yes, there were instruction manuals, dressmaking patterns and technical courses, but to communicate the process of craft, of making itself? To describe it, interrogate it, analyze it? Impossible. Language was wholly unsuited to such a task.

The effect this outright dismissal of language had on craft practice is well established. Craft was – and, to an extent, remains – perceived by some as visceral, as lacking a conceptual core. Craft, in other words, was 'merely' making. And yet making can be considered to have a tacit language of its own, one which cannot be reduced to a series of letters and sounds, vowels and consonants. Our hands, after all, do not exist independently from our bodies. They act because we want them to act, and that action reflects an intellectual process at work. Undoubtedly, there is a language of making, however opaque it might first appear.

This theme regarding the language of craft permeates Glasgow-based artist Ciara Phillips' work, and yet it is merely one part of a much wider study into the pluralism of language with which Phillips is involved. In posing the questions that many of us ask in our work - what do I want to say and how do I want to say it? - Phillips peels back those questions to reveal the structures they seek to conceal. As a result, her work assesses the very bones of language itself, from written forms of language and its alphabet, to the language of making, pattern and medium. In this way Phillips exposes structures within structures: the shapes, gestures, forms which, when placed alongside one another, serve to channel the flow of communication.

However, what Phillips’ work also demonstrates is that language as a tool for communication is neither reliable nor objective. By playing with these seemingly ‘fixed’ structures, Philips reveals that letters - once removed from their alphabetical context - are entirely abstract. This, in turn, exposes a tension central to language: that it is simultaneously transparent and opaque. Like Derrida’s concept of the supplement, Philips seems to be proposing that letters might mean little, if anything, in isolation. Her letters after all, while engaging on some level with each other, stop short of words. And yet, rather than deliberately seeking to confuse, can it be argued that Phillips - as an artist, a maker, a woman - is trying to reclaim the linguistic tools which convey meaning, and thus power?

Language conditions our experience of the world, and as such, it inevitably reinforces gender difference. In this light, the female figure in Phillips’ work could be considered a 'stand-in' for the generation of women with which Phillips aligns her own experience. In her semaphore-like gestures, the figure suggests a confidence and purposefulness that both refers to, and counters, conventional representations of women. For while she remains the subject of our gaze, her pose changes according to a language she has claimed, and possibly subverted. Like the series of medieval woodcuts which provide a source of reference - and which show male and female figures entwined together to create letters in the alphabet – Phillips’ work questions the power dynamic inherent in language: of the subject and the object, the subjugated and the liberated.

These power relations exist in all of the languages discussed. Equally present however, is the sense that the use of language itself reflects a power. Craft, for instance, was traditionally perceived as being less intellectual than art, in part because of its practitioners’ long held reluctance to adopt the questioning stance of the theorist, and by extension, of language. Without language, and its structures within structures, craft was considered naïve and thus powerless. In a similar vein, Phillips' work might lead us to consider the importance of expression, whether through conventional language or through other means. To do so, is to appropriate power, to borrow, unpick it and reclaim it for ourselves.