Clare Plug

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1-30 April, The CAN, Napier
By Michael Hawksworth

Clare Plug has been a central figure of the Hawke’s Bay art and crafts scene for several decades now. Her discursive and imaginative work within the disciplines of embroidery, patchwork and quilting has seen her shift perceptions of them as pure craft, to something that pulls on the historical and compositional threads of painting and drawing. The reclamation of what had previously been regarded as too domestic a skill (for which read ‘womanly’) to be an effective media for expression, or to hang on gallery walls, was already in full swing by the late 60s with the innovations of Feminist artists like Judy Chicago. These crucial liberations of materials and definitions prepared the ground for Plug’s practice which, for the most part, avoids convention and follows a singular path.

Her current show upstairs at CAN is driven by her environmentalist’s concerns for the rapidly progressing erosion of the Arctic. The books and magazines whose photographs and illustrations informed the aesthetic qualities of the works are available to view on a table nearby. Snow and ice can take on a seemingly endless variety of forms, scored, broken, translucent, opaque, crystalline, piled, carved and calved – (“Eskimos”, apparently really do have 50 words for snow) – and so for the artist are an endlessly fertile library of form, texture and compositional inspiration. Plug’s strongly collageinformed process enables her to juxtapose various textures and dyed textiles to hint at the inexorable changes brought once simply by the fluctuation of seasons, but which are now more troubling signifiers.

I’m used to seeing Plug’s work quietly rest on the subtleties of the textures and colours of the fabric and the rhythmic traceries of the stitching – analogous of our views of the earth from above – with all the randomness and abstraction that suggests. There are several works here though that are more directly representational or symbolic, particularly Rain at the Pole whose restrained, quiet rendering is quite haiku-like. This approach doesn’t always pay off though. Arctic Meltdown is more intent on communicating, via a kind of diagram and graph semaphore, the environment’s plight and so misses the beautifully expressive material analogies and ease of a more abstract piece like Break Up, which expresses the urgency and concern with more poetry. With the exception of this last piece, it’s the bigger works that really sing. I think larger scale, with its terrain-like appeal to the eye, is a critical ingredient, at this point, in the success of the works – perhaps its because in this way they claim kinship with painting – particularly abstract expressionism. Many smaller works here seem slight or merely decorative and could easily have been edited from the show to more effectively focus and voice its concerns.

CAN’s upstairs viewing space is not, it has to be said, particularly suited to the task of showing art, especially not work like this. It’s a shame to see moody little pieces like Winter Science and Break Up squashed into corners or under windows with no space to breathe.

I also find CAN’s branded wall labelling/dockets somewhat loud and view-cluttering. As I say, it is delicate work like Plug’s that make these shortcomings more apparent.  

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