"Perhaps its true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcomes of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house - the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture - must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for. Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story. "Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
Karen Vaughan and Janie Nicoll deal in minutiae: from the scarred surface of a pot left cooking too long, to the cracks in the pavement. Both artists currently work with subjects and materials that come easily to hand, and that can just as easily be put down again in response to domestic demands. They combine a degree of technology, the camera for example or the computer, with labour-intensive processes, that include stitching, embroidery and hand cutting, and mix mass-produced objects with the hand crafted.
Both are involved in the processes of translation and conversion - of scale and of materials - to make new stories from old. Their work involves small acts of scrutiny and transformation that uncover beauty, banality and anxiety in the overlooked details of the everyday. Small things, maybe, but not insignificant.
Karen Vaughan: Gathered flowers
In Charlotte Perkins Gillman's famous story The Yellow Wallpaper, a nameless narrator stays in a beautiful but sinister house where she is to recover from nervous illness. Her husband John chooses her an attic room, where she must not exert herself and where her daily routine is obsessively scrutinised. She becomes obsessed with the ragged wallpaper, its sulphur-coloured strips that hang loose where they have been torn in parts from the wall, its pattern infuriatingly banal, "dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study."
The work may be a ghost story, or an allegory of confinement and rebellion. It deals in presences and absences, the way that buildings are haunted by the traces of their previous occupants and the uneasy borderline between privacy and containment. Above all it is a story in which forced inactivity is portrayed as debilitating, and occupation both physical and intellectual is, essential for the sanity of women.
These are also themes that might be read into the work of Karen Vaughan. In which physical spaces are seen to have their own histories of transformation, fragmentation and renewal, and in which human presence and preoccupation is indicated using the slightest interventions but the most laborious techniques of painting, stencilling, sewing, embroidery and knitting.
For her work exit D060169J, in Muster an exhibition situated in Ministry of Defence Housing, Vaughan placed her work in the interior of a wardrobe, as narrow as domestic confines can get. Remaking a kit bag and a series of suit covers in blank white canvas, like ghosts of the original contents, to suggest the complex role of an absent father on military duty.
Vaughan works with cheerful presences too, Living room and Bathroom, are two embroidered silk screen prints where the colourful raised threads alert us to the presence of the artist's son, by highlighting his toys and paraphernalia in otherwise blank and monochrome rooms.
For her recent work Vaughan has been recording the wildflowers that sprout on the pavement on her route to the studio. No botanist, she has been painstakingly identifying them, drawing them, screen-printing them on to patterned -cloth and embroidering them. In the process, Vaughan marks the presence of a marginalised botanical community, the weeds that creep into the city and occupies the cracks in urban structures.
But at the same time her weeds are not glorified, their presence is tentative. Competing as they must with the elaborate floral patterns of the cloth they sit on, recycled from old floral skirts and a duvet cover which the artist found in a charity shop. There is a sense of making, unmaking and remaking that parallels the work Vaughan has done in Belfast on the theme of urban redevelopment.
There is much in Vaughan's work that may seem pointless or useless, she once made a set of hand-knitted dominoes, but it's an ambiguity she deliberately courts. Banal and uncomfortable, claustrophobic as that yellow-patterned wallpaper her wildflowers also mark hours spent in fruitful and satisfying labour.
Janie Nicoll: Big. Bad. Wolf
Something's wrong. In Janie Nicoll's work there is often a palpable sense that bad things happen. Or might be about to happen. Or happened some time ago. She has a vivid memory of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds where a picture of domestic harmony is gradually revealed to be the site of disaster. An empty kitchen, all in order, everything in its place. Until you catch sight of the smashed cup.
In Nicoll's work however, the signals however are often confusing. What should be horrible, a photograph of a burnt pot for example or a squashed fly, might be quite beautiful. What should be beautiful, a hand-embroidered bluebird or a red, red rose, is sinister or cloying.
Nicoll often takes the tiniest detail and amplifies it, repeats it, restructures it to create something new. For her photographic installation Sleep Deprivation she recorded the interior scars on the numerous pots she burnt in the distracted months after the birth of her daughter. Individually they are beautiful - even exotic - images of uncertain origin. Collectively, once you know what they are, they speak of everyday calamity on a domestic scale, a series of minor and incremental disasters.
For Swarm, the artist produced a flock of bluebirds, photographs of the images on an embroidered sampler by Nicoll's great-aunt. There are 300 in all each cut out by hand in an echo of the original craft that created them. A single bluebird might be the subject of a popular Victorian lovesong. But 160 of them? We're back to that kitchen and the cracked cup.
These are works about the ambiguous nature of domestic labours. If there's a contrast between the artist's scraping by and her great -aunt's virtuosity, there is a dramatic contrast too in their respective opportunities. But, whilst Nicoll's work may seem to reflect her worries about the oppressive, repetitive nature of handcrafts, the effort she goes to in cutting out each bird by hand reflects her acknowledgement of the pleasurable escape and the achievement offered by each individual stitch.
Nicoll's work is also about the clever appropriation of available materials. Recently she has been working with digital images she has made of a number of flies that she has swatted in her home. They bring together the connotations of death and anxiety, particularly in the massively enlarged images she has made of a squashed and bloody fly in a windowpane, with the typical and apparently insignificant domestic encounter.
Her flies might be seen as monsters. In looser configurations they suggest a sinister hovering swarm an indication perhaps that just out of sight there may be a decaying corpse, a standard visual cue or clue in the murder mystery. When the images are repeated and regrouped they are made to form decorative patterns and elegant spirals, each fly forming a mark or even a stitch in a grander pattern. In these works anxiety and pleasure are not mutually exclusive categories.
Nicoll's dead flies, small and overlooked as they may be are capable of suggesting mysterious and complex stories. Used, most recently, to spell three words Big Bad Wolf, they might allude to predatory sexuality or to imminent disaster. While the artist is deeply involved in both the pleasures and frustrations of the domestic sphere, she is aware of its essential fragility. Her house might be made of straw and blown down at any minute.
Karen Vaughan is based in Glasgow and studied at Glasgow School of Art and the University of Ulster at Belfast. She was a founding member of Catalyst Arts Belfast, and co-founder of 'Not in Kansas' artists organisation. Recent exhibitions include 'Resonate', College Court, Belfast, 'here' Bulkhead, Glasgow, 'Muster', MOD Housing Helensburgh and 'No Small Feat', Street Level Glasgow.
Moira Jeffrey is a journalist for The Scotsman Newspaper and former Arts correspondent for the Glasgow Herald.
This essay was commissioned by the artists for the exhibition "Small Things" at the Glasgow Project Room, Glasgow, November 2002, with support from The Hope Scott Trust, The Scottish Arts Council, Glasgow Project Room, and Glasgow City Council. With thanks to Moira Jeffrey.