Sheila Hicks, Foray into Chromatic Zones

Hayward Gallery, London. 23 February – 19 April 2015.

Reviewed by Denise Jones

Denise Jones is currently studying for an MA in Textiles at UCA Farnham. She has a particular interest in the process of embroidering.    

Figure 1. Sheila Hicks, Nomad Treasure Bales, (2014-15). Installation view, Sheila Hicks: Foray Into Chromatic Zones, Hayward Gallery Project Space, 23 February – 19 April 2015. Courtesy the artist and Hayward Gallery, London

It is not surprising that the exhibition of work by Sheila Hicks (b.1934), at the Hayward Project Space, celebrates the materiality of fibre and the joy of vibrant colour. Hicks studied at Yale School of Art under Bauhaus tutor and colour theorist Josef Albers and spent considerable time in South America observing traditional textile techniques.[1]

This exhibition offers a snapshot of Hicks’s oeuvre and a glimpse into her long and prolific career, a career that has helped to transform the profile of textile. Hicks has always ignored and defied categorisation; her work spans the visual and decorative arts, architecture and design. She conjoins creative ideas – relating to the body in movement and memory of place – with manual skills and above all gives pre-eminence to the handling of materials and the use of colour.

The Dan Graham Waterloo Sunset Pavilion adjoining the Project Space has been “inhabited” with massed meshed sacks of fibre. The viewer is encouraged to become horizontal, to pause and be immersed in a sea of bright colour which sharply contrasts with the grey, brutalist architecture surrounding Waterloo Bridge. In the accompanying film, The Sunbrella Project (2015), Hicks scoops, twists, pulls, and stretches fibres in a wordless dialogue. She engages with the elemental vocabulary of fibre and threads. She knots, loops, embroiders, entwines, wraps, winds and weaves. Her processes are hypnotic. It is as if she charms the threads as they uncoil, unravel and reform.

The mystery of her threads is reiterated in the white gallery spaces. Nomad Treasure Bales (2014-15) (Figure 1) and Conductor Batons (2014-15) are fibre forms bound intensively with multi coloured threads. In these works Hicks suggests that threads move, have dynamism and limitless energy. The batons become conducting wands; the treasure bales, precious containers. In these works, she is unafraid of using shiny threads, which terrestrially sparkle and suggest starbursts. Baoli Chords/ Cordes Sauvages Pow Wow (2014-15) (Figure 2) is a collection of thick root-like wrapped primal cords, which tangle and search, visually dancing against the gallery walls.

Figure 2. Cordes Sauvages Pow Wow, (2015). Installation view, Sheila Hicks: Foray Into Chromatic Zones, Hayward Gallery Project Space, 23 February – 19 April 2015. Courtesy the artist and Hayward Gallery, London

In the smaller back room of the gallery are examples of Hicks’s Minimes. Displayed are a coherent selection of Hicks’s small weavings, which are perhaps the most intimate and revealing of her practice. They make a direct reference to the natural world in their incorporation of shells and feathers. Standing in their own right, they are compressions of personal meanings. They suggest “much in little” and explore the structurally complex.[2] She describes these works as formal investigations where she picks and pokes as if writing an uneven letter. She weaves, wraps and embroiders. Threads become cloths and cloths become threads. Registering these works, in what has been described as one of the most beautiful of books, Weaving as Metaphor, Hicks states,

I found my voice and my footing in my small work. It enabled me to build bridges between art, design, architecture and the decorative arts.[3]

Refreshingly, Hicks does not shy away from using the term “embroidery” to describe one of her processes. Her recently remade architectural panels for The Ford Foundation building in New York, are of repeated embroidered “knots”. In regular rows, they resemble dials or wheels, suggesting the conflation of time and movement, clocks signalling hours, minutes, seconds in embroidered thread.

The naming of this exhibition, the use of the word, “foray” implies the act of venturing into a territory. On a grey March morning, up stairs, overlooking the incessant London traffic of Waterloo Bridge, Hicks seizes us with her chromatic zones of colour. For a while, we are taken on her very particular journey. Alongside her, we too perceive a fluid terrain translated into fibre and threads. We note with her, the energy of matter and the colour of the world, and most importantly, travel along her thread lines of enquiry.


[1] Joan Simon lists Hicks’s extensive global travels, stating that she has visited every country in South America. Simon draws attention to the influence of Andean textiles in particular and of time spent in Peru, Mexico and Chile. Joan Simon, “Frames of Reference” in Shelia Hicks, Weaving as Metaphor (Yale: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 47-51.

[2] Simon describes Hicks’s Minimes as “much in little”, a condensation of meaning and form. Simon in Hicks, Weaving as Metaphor, p.56.

[3] The book won the gold medal for “The Most Beautiful Book in the World” at the Leipzig Book Fair 2007. The quote is taken from Hicks, Weaving as Metaphor, p.17

3 thoughts on “Sheila Hicks, Foray into Chromatic Zones

  1. Pingback: Cordes Sauvages Pow Wow – Elnaz's Blog

  2. I first saw my first Hick’s miniature weavings in Paris around 1971 and was overcome with the versatility of her work, her reconsideration of Andean Bound fringes which were to become Her trademark use of Fiber and the poetry behind every work..
    I remembr a piece influencd by Nuns who save and use every scap of cloth, resulting in piece white on white of small pieces of linen slit and joined to make works at once filled with poetry and the slits joined became words or sentences but went beyond sewn and saved works but were akin to Mark Tobey’s works when his use of paint became Dreamlike, figures dancing in the dark but her works took on different meanings a they were all done in white linen, slit and joined to make poetry-like weavings. I will never forget those and have allowed her works to influence my own, of which I am proud. bUt Sheila’s weavings have a method of handling thread which is unmistakeable from anyone else’s. I have spent a lifetime lerning from He and loving everyone of her pieces. i hope she never stops for every piece is so different from other pieces she has so much to teach us still.

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