Exhibitions: As ye sew, ye can't paint

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The Independent Culture
Loose Threads

Serpentine Gallery, W2

"No maiden's spinning wheel goes faster then mine, in the whole of the canton of Berne!" is the merry boast of a girl in one of Jeremias Gotthelf's quaint tales of Swiss life. She is, of course, expecting a marriage proposal. I couldn't get this sentence out of my mind when visiting "" at the Serpentine Gallery, for this humourless anthology has lots of quotes from literature at its centre, and its main purpose is to assert that the use of thread - in knitting, sewing or whatever - proves that we have entered a new world of feminism and postmodernism.

As if we didn't know this already! Only one or two of the 17 artists in the exhibition are known in Britain, but nobody tells us anything new. The use of a slightly unfamiliar medium does not guarantee originality. Many of the pieces on display could have been made two or three decades ago. How many times, over the years, have we seen pieces like Brigitte Nahon's Icholi Hauperyre, which consists of little flexiglass balls pinned to threads which are suspended, in a line, from a height? Or the photographs of Ernesto Neto, who shows himself with his face covered in twine? Or Ghada Amer's Bed, which is stuffed embroidery lying inertly on the floor?

Like so many people who weave and spin, the curator of this exhibition, Lisa Corrin, has worked long and hard, but to little aesthetic effect. She has been round the world to find artists at work with thread and has installed them neatly in the Serpentine's recently updated spaces. Yet her professional skill cannot vitalise the sluggish nature of the material with which her artists work. For thread is not a vital medium. You can't do much with it. If you try to make sculpture, all your efforts will turn out something like a cushion. If you attempt an installation, it goes all wispy. And if you aim for two- dimensional art, the results, inevitably, will resemble painting.

And that is the nature of most of the art that Corrin has collected. When artists use a single thread they copy drawing. When they use multiple threads they are imitating effects that can be achieved with oil paint. The most obvious lesson of the exhibition is not to do with feminism. It is that thread cannot match the expressive potential of these other media. The most telling works in the show are by Anna Hunt. These claim our attention because the simulation of painting is so complete. She produces paintings of modern architecture, and Falling Water depicts Frank Lloyd Wright's 1936-9 house. She's an accomplished, some might say a superb, technician. One marvels at her work, that is to say her handiwork. For if these were paintings, they would just be unremarkable bits of realism copied from photographs.

I have no objection to Hunt's enterprise, but thread artists take themselves too seriously. Furthermore, they are not very good at reading and writing, as may be gauged from Corrin's catalogue introduction and a gigantic display of intellectual futility in the big central gallery: no fewer than 27 embroidered samplers laboriously stitched together by Elaine Reichek, reproducing quotations from, among others, Henry James, Ad Reinhardt, Ovid, Tennyson, Hawthorne, Beatrix Potter, Freud, Colette, Jenny Holzer, and Virginia Woolf.

Samplers always look pretty good. We admire the neat fingers that have produced their embroidery. The alphabets and mottos remind us of sweet puritan virtues shared by such people as Gotthelf's Swiss maiden and the daughters of the American pilgrim fathers. Reichek calls on these traditions: not, apparently, to subvert them but just to demonstrate that she is well- read. Yet she proves no such thing. Instead, she gives the impression that literary culture, like the visual, is beyond her, unapproachable except through quotations, which appear the more fatuous the longer one stands in front of them.

Reichek once studied with the miserable Reinhardt, and surely has inherited some of the painter's negativism. But I am more distressed by the sheer waste of time involved. Any moderately smart person could have read and assessed a dozen books within the time taken to embroider one of these quotations.

In the category of imitators of painting are the following: Holly Miller uses thread instead of drawn lines in her otherwise conventional minimal paintings; Lisa Hoke attaches thread to the walls of a small room; Ava Gerber has put thread, plus wire and artificial pink flowers, on the wall in the shape of female pubic hair. The most interesting imitator is Jochen Flinzer. He's got something, but his talent would be better tested if he used pen and ink.

Serpentine, W2 (0171 298 1515), to 20 Sept.

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