Traversing Radials of Cultures Webs

by Linda Pittwood





…man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs

Geertz, C. (1973)



All is not black and white. History goes from present to past, not past to future. Sometimes buildings that were once white are later painted: in tropical colours, pastels or blue. Facades, surfaces and details can be fabricated from plasterboard. What is authenticity and artificiality when it comes to the places and spaces in which we invest our hopes and dreams?

Jenny Steele has recently come back from Miami, Florida, USA where she spent several intense weeks investigating the modernist architecture along miles of beachfront. Miami is only a century old, she explains. The land itself, between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay, is partly man-made. The palm trees were introduced not indigenous. A conversation with Steele feels like, if not a node in her multifarious web of inquiry, maybe a hyphen in the grammar of her research-based practice.

The origins of Steele's current work go back at least to 2011 when she visited Chongqing, PRC and produced drawings and woodblock prints including 'Attempts to enter the forbidden city' (2011). Arrows and dotted lines chart imaginary journeys around abstracted architecture. Her 'desire path' works from that period reveal an interest in the intersections of art, design and how we construct, live in and understand the built environment. But it wasn't until 2014 that her ideas started to crystallise around the interwar years and 'seaside moderne' style.

The sun in Miami renders everything crisp and technicolor. In the watercolour drawings that Steele produced as one strand of her research, precision gives way to immediacy and intimacy. We lose the sense of what is doorpost, fingerplate, transom, hypernym, or another element that makes up a building's physical self. Steele zooms in on motifs and cultural idiosyncrasies and finds a personal pathway through a vast amount of visual information.

Complementing drawing about architecture, Steele traverses the radials of culture's webs, conducts archival research and meets with experts including artists, academics and tour guides. Combining these methods she is able to invoke the (former) life of built environments in her designs and expand her work conceptually to question how we construct histories, highlighting the temporal nature of meaning and significance. She challenges the audience to question our own responsibility to architecture, artefacts and atmospheres of the present and past.

From 2014-2016 Steele intensively investigated 'seaside moderne' in the North West of England. Focussing on epochal buildings or structures such as Blackpool Pleasure Beach and The Midland Hotel, and often ignored examples of the style: Grange over Sands Lido, Carron Restaurant Stonehaven, New Brighton Palace, Rothesay Pavilion. Cleaving them open, revealing how they contributed to - and were shaped by - tourism, the economy, civic identity and taste. Distilling them into designs and drawings that evolved into textiles and prints, wallpaper and art objects that teetered on the brink of becoming 'products.' Sometimes, in particular, in the example of The Midland Hotel, her outputs are presented as interventions in the architecture that inspired them.

Steele reveals that her interest in the interwar years in Europe and America, and the architecture that period engenders, is motivated in part by how the rippling resonances of trauma are combined with optimism. These qualities are acute in seaside moderne buildings. Our hopes and dreams, as well as our worst excesses and failures, pushed to the limits of the landmass. 'The Sea Breeze was The Cure' (2016) a design displayed as wallpaper at the Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, points to the association of the seaside with health in the interwar years, already a trope of Victorian Britain, and how this ideology reverberates in the architecture. In wallpaper 'Over and Over Jump In' (2016) healthy art deco bodies dive into the mise en abyme.

The 'desire paths' that occur in Jenny Steele's work are not only her own, but also those of travellers that crossed the sea. Connecting and dividing Steele's work in the UK and the USA is the North Atlantic Ocean. Sea motifs and references to ocean liners contribute to the texture of seaside moderne design and act like co-ordinates in an international constellation. Her project has the potential to expand to new geographical territories and further into a post-colonial past.

Earlier this year Steele was resident at The Tetley in Leeds. To this project she applied a similar approach as she used for the miles of modernism on Florida's coast.

'All the men, all the men' (2017) emerges like an exasperated cry from within the archive. It is a printed textile scarf designed like an inverted panopticon; men in suits circle around to surveil a female worker. A historical mirage of organisational culture in a former patriarchal brewery turned egalitarian art centre.

The politics of production and the status of 'art' are the co-subjects of 'Hella, Arcadia to Dunoon,' (2016). This site-specific piece was exhibited in the show 'Division of Labour', at Rogue Project Space, where Steele is also a member of the studio. A large, flat textile printed with her designs begins as a wall hanging, drapes sinuously over two antique wooden clothes dryers, ending up on the floor. It is the outcome of her research into the company Edinburgh Weavers and Printers, based in Carlisle in the 1920s-1940s. Freezing this cottage industrial-machine in time exposes a moment at which sculpture and painting intersect, and invites consideration of the artificial separation of 'design' and 'art.'

Although writing about Jenny Steele's work is less about finding a central narrative than mapping her many strands of inquiry, there is a structure or framework, one could call it a web, that makes her practice rigorous and never haphazard. The bigger ideology within a bitchy memo in the archive or the thoughtful production of silver spoons laid on the table are translated into objects and designs of complexity and lightness. Her constant concern with surface and interior: the border of coastland, the boundaries of the discipline, the cheap fabrication of a building's façade or the optimism masking the recovery from wartime; is skilfully channelled into works where these distinctions cease to matter.


Linda Jean Pittwood is an arts critic, academic and project manager. As a writer Linda has written extensively for websites, magazines, peer reviewed journals and exhibition catalogues; including interviews with Peter Doig, Cornelia Parker and others, and features on dOCUMENTA13 and Manchester Asia Triennial. From 2009-2015 she was Exhibition Officer at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, working with networks of national and international partners to deliver shows including the work of David Hockney, Enrico David and Bridget Riley. Since 2015 she has been a PhD candidate in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies at The University of Nottingham.