We imagine we know where the danger lies with Johanna Basford, considering ourselves already overly familiar with her work. Not yet thirty and but a short jump beyond her Degree Show, just yards down the road from the DCA, we might believe ourselves too cosy in her lacy company. We know what she does. Therein lies the real danger.
Trained in Printed Textiles, but ill at ease with the fashion world, Basford is now an illustrator, but this is only part of her story. She describes herself an “ink evangelist” and that may be more accurate.
For her, “colour confuses it”, and indeed her best works recall moments in Aubrey Beardsley and show some flashes of Alasdair Gray. It is possible to trace influences in both folk and high art – Scandinavian cut papers, the Baroque, the Arts and Crafts movement and more. Employing an impressive range of technology, she is quick to show that work starts simply with observation, imagination and a pencil and paper. She is rightly proud to refer to her work as “crafted”.
Take time to watch the video before entering the exhibition. When the first moves were made to secure this show, the industrious Basford believed herself the victim of a prank. Those who consider her to be overly polished and stylistically constrained will be disarmed by her open engagement and humility.
“I delight in inky finger prints”. Refreshingly, she finds Photoshop handy for removing spilt tea. Other stains become butterflies and ladybirds.
The gallery opens in an airy textile wander … screens of trees; when realised, their scale even surprised their illustrator. This provides a contrast to the coming wall of wallpapers, which evoke a contemporary take on the classic days of Arthur Silver’s Liberty prints, with Gothic shades and dark hints of the Tim’rous Beasties. This is chintz with an edge; snakes and pirate skulls, bird bones and webs, in a superficially familiar framework. Basford, of course, has designed a tattoo or two. The positive/negative sequencing is instructive.
Passing two smaller framed pieces, the two figures and dog grouping, and the boat, might easily be dismissed as yet another 2D designer just imposing pattern on a 3D surface. It is a familiar complaint from the 3D designer’s stance. Here, that criticism is unfounded. Projected images billow on sails and move past her boat. Again, the echoes of the Tim’rous Beasties, as seen in this same space, can be sensed. That is no bad thing. Basford is far from static. Brave enough to engage in a Twitter-led drawing marathon, she moves courageously.
Cuckoo clocks, perhaps the epitome of kitsch, occupy the next wall. Once more, guard against that first glance, where everything in the garden appears too lovely. Check the malevolent touches, the glowering stags, and that continuing exploration of opposites already seen on the opposite wall. It might be interesting to see this taken further, with changes of plane and surface, but it is a very minor quibble. Her tree of thanks, with accompanying legend, further opens and shares her ideas – a creative generosity which bodes well for the activities planned in association with the show.
Gallery reconstructions of studio space, like writer’s desk descriptions, are often tedious and self-indulgent conceits. Not here. From her beer bottles, past her Twa Corbies illustration, via book jackets to her chair, fittingly covered in her own fabric, this ably frames an artist open to challenges, with plenty of boundary-breaking scope in her black and white wonderland.
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.
William Morris said it, but it might equally be uttered today by Johanna Basford.