1-21 June 2024

Candida Stevens Gallery


The faces and figures in Alice Kettle’s narrative embroideries emerge full of vivid life from apparent indeterminacy and hesitation. They loom into view out of agitated backgrounds, brightly coloured or mysteriously dark, flecked and striated. Some are momentarily full of the joy of greeting, of quiet communion or shouted triumph; others rise up as if harrowed by the horrors they have seen or suddenly emboldened to speak out. Nothing is stable or lasting. These personages bring with them the myriad tangled visions and revisions from which they have been born. At the same time, the stories they tell are strong and powerful.

It seems an extraordinary feat to make embroidery, an art form used traditionally to embellish, a medium for significant original creative expression, capable of plumbing the depths and scaling the heights of human experience. But Britain has form in these matters. There is the astonishing  Bayeux Tapestry, a dramatic narrative embroidered by unknown Norman seamstresses in the 11th century. The dense figurative embroideries of medieval English craftspeople, known as Opus Anglicanum, were renowned across Europe. And in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Britain led the way in exploring embroidery as an art form. Alice acknowledges these forbears. But it was her discovery of a post-graduate textile art course at Goldsmiths College in the 1980s, that opened the door. Alice had set out originally to be a painter, but the death in a car accident of her mother in Alice’s first year at art college threw her world off course. From deep grief, Alice seized on an art form that would draw her closer to her mother, who had been an incessant maker.  She remembers, “I needed to do something that acknowledged the emotional self, the slightly fragile female self. All my work comes from that, giving voice to the precarity of being.”

Simultaneously, Alice’s acute interests in mark making and colour were joined by a more urgent need for stories. She looked at the work of Paula Rego, Louise Bourgeois and others who showed  her “how women can own the space through reframing accepted stories.” For many years, married to a half Greek concert pianist and travelling frequently to Greece, with her three daughters, Greek myth provided the starting point for whole bodies of work. Even through subsequent series relating to political protest or the migrant and refugee crises, the idea of Ariadne’s golden thread, leading Theseus out from the labyrinth, but also of Penelope’s guileful art, have remained fundamental for her. In addition to its metaphorical resonance however, thread offers a way to enliven the surface of the art work in multiple, surprising ways. Alice explains: “You can draw a linear, illustrative line, in fact two connecting lines, top and bottom, which also operate as constructive lines that join things together. This creates  tension between the threads and fabric, which are always in negotiation. It makes a living, double sided surface, which responds to light, helping me tell the story.”

For some years, Alice stitched the entire surface, using analogue and an element of digital machine stitch in idiosyncratic ways to disrupt the smooth running of the line. Today, she creates an underlying coloured background, working first with paint and drawing, adjusting between digital screen and analogue paper, which she then prints onto the fabric. The stitching is then in dialogue with that background, dancing across it, sometimes thickening in islands of stitched detail or else strung out with different thicknesses of thread across the space. Much of the embroidery is achieved working from the back of the fabric, with Alice operating as much by instinct and imagination as with any certain sense of what will emerge. Some areas of intense stitching record Alice’s movements and the emotions that drove them at certain points in her journey through the work. “That is the evolution. Instead of being trapped in the density of the stitch, working onto the printed background opens the pictorial space and allows it to breathe.”

In 2023 Alice won the Brookfield Properties Craft Award. In various of Brookfield’s London spaces she showed a number of works, including the exuberant, precarious The House that Jack and His Friends Built. This celebrates the latest phase of her life, in a new home overlooking fields in Somerset. Between then and now, however, despite this hopefulness after years of challenge, some of Alice’s work has become thrillingly dark. She says, “The works have become blacker and blacker, as an echo of the collapse of the communities and individuals I work closely with, caught up in conflict and tension.” She explains, “The works seek hope springing from desolation.” They express the longing for rehabilitation, recovery and renewal, which Alice senses all around her, and show us individuals clinging to relationships, in apocalyptic conditions. Two texts to which she returns constantly are TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its incantatory stitching together of salvaged fragments, written during the First World War, and John Donne’s famous Meditation XVII, from his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, with its opening line: “No Man is an island.” Her works are emblematic of her own understanding of how the imagination and human relationship might heal. But they also reflect her understanding that just as without community, there is no strong individual, so without darkness, there is no light or the spectrum of colours in between: “Maybe you have to go into the dark to see the light. Otherwise the light becomes invisible.”

In the dark works, like “Red and Blue”, “Dark Gold”, “Green, Gold and Black” or “Night”, the figures are frail as ghosts but resilient, tender, held together in relationship with each other or by some inner glow, burning outwards to defy despair. Alice twists metallic threads to connect with others in order to catch the light, to heighten the drama of light and dark, expressing the entwining of relationships, and adding yellow thread with its connotations of sunlight. But even the brightly coloured works are ambiguous. “Grey Turning to Yellow” offers two characters so intertwined we cannot tell where one ends and the other begins: Are they pulling away or coming together? Across several Alice has used the repeat motif of a lozenge, which look en masse uncannily like bombs dropping – or are they seeds?  Nothing is straightforward. Even the bold sunflowers are held by a spooky witch-like figure. It is as if in order to tell the truth, Alice has to combine light and dark. Beauty is hard won.

Essay by Emma Crichton-Miller.