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Johanna Unzueta: Tools for Life

Solo exhibition of New York-based Chilean artist Johanna Unzueta (b. 1974). Includes four new commissions: a large-scale sculpture of felt cogs; a collection of garments; a film shot at a textiles factory in Chile; a site-specific wall mural; plus a selection of her abstract drawings.
Johanna Unzueta, 'A Garment for the Day' (photo credit Eat Pomegranate Photography)
Modern Art Oxford, 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford OX1 1BP, Sat 8 February - Sun 10 May 2020

February 11, 2020
Blending art, craft and industry

Johanna Unzueta's journey as an artist is an intriguing one. Born in Chile, Unzueta studied art at Santiago's Universidad Católica, but just as important as her formal training was her upbringing: she learnt craft techniques from her mother and grandmother and could weave and knit before she could read or write. She later worked with the Mapuche, an indigenous group from south-central Chile, where she discovered how to use dyes from beetroot and onionskin to colour fabrics. A residency in Guatemala allowed Unzueta to work with natural indigo and also gain an insight into the Guatemalan textile industry, building on an interest in manufacturing processes that was sparked in Chile. Where better to showcase the artist’s unique melding of the indigenous and the industrial than Modern Art Oxford, housed in a renovated brewery that still retains many vestiges of its previous life.

It's best to start with the selection of geometric drawings displayed in the far gallery. Using indigo and other natural dyes, Unzueta has traced round embroidery hoops of varying sizes, or around arms, hands or fingers - she avoids using rulers, instead approximating distance by eye or using her own body as a measure. Together, the lines and perforations form mesmeric, almost kaleidoscopic diagrams resembling leaf structures or colourful ripples on a pond. They are more sculpture than drawing, pressed between perspex and held upright by wooden blocks so that visitors can wander amongst them, while also admiring other designs on hinges attached to the walls. There's no sense of chronology or narrative - instead the pieces feel spontaneous, and the dyes add an unpredictability of their own, promising uncertain results that change colour over time.

 Johanna Unzueta - April 2015 NY November 2015 Cuernavaca, with thanks to Modern Art Oxford

In the middle gallery, an expansive wall mural shares features of the geometric sculpture-drawings, with lines, dots and ovals mapping out an abstract schemata. Nearby, Unzueta has designed a rack of outfits using fabric from an upcycled denim factory in Guatemala. Humble yet functional, the uniforms were tailored specially for gallery staff to wear on the opening night of the exhibition. Taken together, they ask questions about the ethics of the fashion and textiles industry, challenging the viewer to consider the hands that make the clothes we wear.

In a smaller side gallery, a short film entitled 'La Fábrica' depicts a Chilean textile factory, the film projected onto a piece of fabric made there. There is an emphasis on texture here, whether it's the material being manufactured, the screen itself, or the flickering grain of the 8mm film. Other short films shown in the basement again focus on manufacturing, but also represent the way that man-made designs mirror the natural world, as metal bridge struts and window frames share the screen with leaf and branch structures. Slightly oddly-placed on a nearby windowsill is a brilliant piece of visual trickery: a large sculpture of a burnt matches, which appear charred and hardened but are in fact constructed with soft felt.

Burning seems of interest to Unzueta: in the main gallery lies a blackened pyre of railway sleepers, and charcoal is used in her drawings. But easily the most eye-catching piece in the sparse main hall is a specially-commissioned one: nine felt links of chain, each as tall as the artist herself, joined by wooden spools and together forming a huge structure that reaches almost to the ceiling. Slightly puny by comparison are two paired sculptures in felt: detailed replicas of taps and pipework. As with the felt matches, seeing these normally metallic objects rendered in a soft material deceives the eye. In this way Unzueta forces us to re-evaluate the mechanical, everyday things that we so often forget, reminding us that even in manufactured, functional items there is a kind of beauty.

The collection as a whole appears rather disparate, to the extent that you would be forgiven for thinking that the gallery was hosting different exhibitions. But it is this variety of media that is arguably the standout feature of Unzueta's work. And of course there are recurring themes that underpin the artist's oeuvre: motion and mobility, the similarities between man-made and natural designs, the importance of craft and labour. Unzueta herself refers to her 'trade' rather to her art or profession, and her pieces are manufactured in the oldest sense of the word - made with her hands, the simplest tools of all. Tools For Life is a fascinating, broad-ranging body of work, a labour of love, graft, felt and dye that deceives and delights.

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