A few years ago in Latvia, artist Dillwyn Smith wandered around the birthplace of Mark Rothko. After a time, he gathered a sense of what the great forefather of abstraction would have frequently seen in the first ten years of his childhood: decorated windows. Throughout Daugavpils there are countless wooden houses with shuttered windows in various stages of decay and replenishment, their frames and surrounds lavished in an array of subdued colours. Dillwyn’s intense visual research resulted in an exhibition of simple, yet incredibly colour-sensitive paintings displayed alongside his enchanting site photographs.
Fast forward to now and that winsome beauty has made its way into his latest solo exhibition at V.O. Curations, a curatorial and studio programme based in London and Paris, founded by Zina Vieille and Nnamdi Obiekwe. For Light Cages1 Dillwyn has installed framed compositions of parallel lines using mass produced nylons sourced from Oman. He explains how ‘across the years I became excited that colour within fabric, as opposed to on fabric, refracts light and interacts with the eye differently to a painted surface’. So these are not paintings, but rather, painterly fabric pieces. Or perhaps they might be called fabric paintings. Their categorisation is barely significant as the story of how they came to be unfolds and we witness their powerful impact in the gallery space.
Stretched onto a wooden support which is normally used for paintings on canvas, each piece is a composite of stitched fabric which opens up a rabbit hole of cross-cultural stories. To begin roughly in the middle, in 2012 Dillwyn was awarded a residency based in Muscat by the Omani Society of Fine Art, the Delfina Foundation and the British Council. One evening he accompanied fellow artist Abdul Rahim Al Hooti to a tailor where the latter was having a new Dishdasha made. Dillwyn explained: ‘I looked around and the walls were full of local colour embedded in fabrics. I realised immediately that here was my new palette. I went about putting bolts of different colours together for hours and going back the next day too. I then cut and pinned them together and had the stitching done by the tailor.’
The fabrics, it turns out, have their own muddled past and present meanings. Sold in the middle east, they’re manufactured in Indonesia and Japan. Opaques are for men, while the semi translucent fabrics are for woman. There’s a myriad of alternative whites which are commonly seen, though other colours signify homelands, public roles and hierarchical status.
Since his time in Oman, Dillwyn has experimented with the way they are put together. He explained how he seeks out different local people and ‘there’s something in the tension of each style of stitching that describes a community and their traditions. It’s not as if I’d use that narrative to describe the work, but it’s important to me as it’s a critical part behind the scenes.’ In fact, there’s a particularly moving story of how, when he complimented the way a local tailor was rolling the edges of the fabric then stitching them, the man immediately leapt from his chair, exclaiming: ‘Sir! My father made the uniforms for the British Army in Kashmir.’
Still, this is not the artist’s first foray into using fabrics to make paintings. His mother had a long journey through Alzheimer’s and, when she reached a point of being unable to speak, Dillwyn and his mother shared, what he refers to as a ‘silent dialogue’. This hugely affected the way he started looking at his work. And, to shorthand another long process, he began painting the essence of colour using pure pigment which was then potentised through a professional homeopathic methodology. Much like the silent dialogue with his mother, the work became more about belief than what could be seen. Directing the liquid with a plant sprayer, the delicate watermarks of then, are echoed in some of his fabrics on display here today.
Crinkled, wonky, stretched and strained weaves are revealed on close inspection. Even patched repairs are here and there. Dillwyn asserts there’s many imperfections so they’re ‘not pretty as such’. Pretty is too powder puff anyway for the stunning visual effect of his selection and combinations of fabric. Description belongs more to the illusiveness of their shimmer, depth and the promise of touch; this fabric is normally for clothing after all. And perhaps it is this current everydayness alongside their connection with the historical painter’s search for the perfect sense of light, that is key. They become easy to talk about. So as Dillwyn and I finish our chat he wonders if that’s where their real potency is located – in the stories of how they came to be and the conversations that circle around how they appear before us.
1 Light Cages exhibition is at V.O. Curations at their London site until 22 November 2019.