This exhibition explores how knowledge of either contemporary craft practice or mathematics may increase appreciation of both. The title is from a 1940 essay by accomplished mathematician G H Hardy who declared: ‘The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s, must be beautiful, the ideas, like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the First Test; there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.’
Mathematical concepts underpin many craft techniques, especially around textile construction, and can be key tools for artistic development. The exhibition’s intention is to unlock and demystify maths by showing unique and stimulating works of art, and also inviting in-depth consideration of contemporary craft practice in this wider context. The exhibition also includes selected ‘non craft’ artists who demonstrate craftsmanship in their practices. Beauty and playfulness are evident, to illustrate what delights both craftspeople and maths enthusiasts, in aesthetic consideration, techniques and the underlying theories.
This project also stems from debates around the current situation where the arts and sciences are pitted against each other in school curricula (a situation highlighted by the 2012 Henley Report and recent debate about emphases placed on the syllabus by the proposed EBacc). Beauty is the First Test sets out to show that art and mathematics are more closely bound together than many perceive and that the enjoyment of one can enhance the understanding of the other.
Most forms of constructed textiles (even felting) involve a degree of mathematics in their planning and execution. A significant link between craft and maths came in the 19th century when the jacquard weaving industry gave inspiration to Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, early investigators of mechanical counting machines.
In the craft world the loom is a physical embodiment of mathematical theory: weavers count threads, measure warps, and record repeating patterns on graph paper. Lovelace and Babbage’s experiments are the direct forerunners of today’s computer industry.
The most expressive art project in recent years demonstrating the links between maths and constructed textiles is the California-based Institute for Figuring’s Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, which has toured internationally, including to the UK. Crochet perfectly expresses hyperbolic curves. On the other hand, knitting involves a similar twining of threads but the difference in the way that stitches are formed creates a softer textured fabric, which lends itself less easily to non-Euclidean geometry. Knitting does have similar systems of counting and opportunity for repeat pattern to those occurring in weaving. In knitting this is expressed through one continuous snaking thread, instead of weaving’s multitude of threads lying parallel to each other.
One of the simplest textile applications for Euclidean geometry is the patchwork quilt, a means of reconstructing scraps of fabric to form pleasing patterns and shapes. Since its initial flourishing as a domestic occupation and expression of thrift in the nineteenth century, where discarded and worn garments of families of straightened means often provided the starting point, the quilt has become elevated to an art-form and often seems far removed from its quotidian roots.
Fibres may be shaped into three- dimensional forms through the many basketry techniques developed around the world. Basketmakers may be inspired by nature and make asymmetric and random objects, but often also create regulated forms with pattern repeats and geometric shapes that are physical embodiments of mathematical drawings.
And looking at the meaning of craft itself: if it is about embodiment of thinking processes through technique and with particular attention to the materials employed, and a demonstration of how the artist’s mind and eye guide the hand, then what media are ‘appropriate’ to craftsmanship? For example, if paper is a ‘craft’ material, does it matter how the artist uses it—to fold, cut, tear, burn or simply as a surface for drawing? Working with the hands, engaging the senses and forming suitable materials to create three-dimensional shapes is sculpture and also craft. There seems to be no particular reason to value plaster or clay over one another, yet the former’s transformation into bronze adds both literal and metaphorical weight in some eyes.
Whether working in wool, cotton, silk, wood, bronze, wire, rattan or acrylic; using needles, bobbins, shafts, chisels, planes, saws, pens, pencils, lasers, scissors or just hands; all of the artists here embrace mathematical concepts, both explicitly and implicitly.
The resulting artworks are in turns dramatic, subtle, playful, thought- provoking and, dare I say it, sometimes even beautiful.
Liz Cooper, Curator, April 2013
The original project was developed with the support of Arts Council England, Crafts Council, Pump House Gallery, Wandsworth Arts, Wandsworth Children’s Services and The National Centre for Craft & Design. It has been further supported by Arts Council Northern Ireland and R-Space. Key suppliers include Expofreight, Gale & Hayes, David Kenn and Swaingrove. The exhibition would not be possible without the support and cooperation of all the exhibiting artists and owners of artworks. My sincere thanks are given to everyone involved.
Pumphouse Gallery, London 12 September – 25 November 2013
R-Space @ The Linen Rooms, Lisburn, 5 February – 5 March 2013
The National Centre for Craft & Design, Sleaford, 27 April – 30 June 2013
Bilston Craft Gallery, Wolverhampton, 7 September – 2 November 2013
Platform Gallery, Clitheroe, 25 January – 19 April 2014
National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny, 16 May – 9 July 2014.