Saturday, 28 September 2013


25 September – 18 October 2013

Penelope, by Becky Allen.

Mildly political artworks reflecting the social and economic history of Spitalfields.

Passing through the City proper to reach neighbouring Spitalfields is as strange an experience as it must always have been. Thronged streets of suited men and women, giving the impression that they want to make an impression, give way to informal markets and cafes peopled more leisurely.

The Leyden gallery is situated between the financial centre and the old garment district, which is still in use as a clothing market area, though I doubt many of the suits from the former are made now in the latter.

Fabricate is one of the current exhibitions at the Leyden. The other, a collection of treated flower / leaf photographic prints by Alexander Hamilton is more commercial, perhaps intended to attract a purchaser from the city who is idly passing on their lunch break.

The larger exhibition is more ambitious, more thought-provoking, and involves more artists. Perhaps it is also weaker artistically, being more of a work-in-progress as the gallery curators style it.

This is art about textiles, rather than textiles as art, though Zhenhan Hao appears to have a couple of ‘collectible’ items of handmade clothing on display.

Principally the artists are making political or social comments about clothing. My favourite work here is Hao’s Portrait with Apple, which would surely have pleased Magritte, whose style it copies. This is an ironic comment on China’s ability to manufacture goods, including iphones, based upon designs found elsewhere. And the painting itself is a product someone has bought, based on a Belgian design.

If that were the whole of it, it would be merely a decent joke, but thankfully Magritte is a good painter to copy, and the work is striking.

Sue Clayton’s series of photographs, supposedly depicting a white Victorian seamstress returned to dwell amongst current Spitalfields residents, is both more ambitious and more problematic.

The images celebrate the diversity of Spitalfields, while retaining the sense that these are still poor people making their living from textiles. Whether this accurately reflects economic reality in this gentrified area, I don’t know, but large parts of the East End no longer suggest nineteenth century urban poverty.

The seamstress is unsmiling: is she unhappy with the changes? Or with how little, in the end, has actually changed? Is it misleading to depict a white woman as the Victorian resident exemplar, given the racial diversity that the area has had since reformation times?

The other artists in this show, Hilary Ellis and Becky Allen, have produced abstract responses conveying something of the texture and mystery of fabrics. They nicely complement the narrative work of the first two artists.

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