Allistair Covell: Canvas To Carpet (8 Feb – 5 May 2019) at the Broadway Gallery in Letchworth Garden City was the first major solo exhibition of Allistair’s work in the United Kingdom. The exhibition, commissioned by the gallery’s curator Laura Dennis, served as a survey of Allistair’s creative practice over a period of five years. The centrepiece of the exhibition was a series of hand-knotted carpets; woven interpretations of the artist’s abstract paintings and drawings handmade in Afghanistan and Nepal.
“The Broadway Gallery is very excited to announce that it will host Allistair’s first major solo exhibition in Spring 2019, focusing on his creative journey from the canvas to the carpet. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to experience the carpets up close; adorning the walls of the gallery in a celebration of them as objets d’art and learning about the techniques involved in their production. Each carpet in the exhibition, much like Allistair’s original paintings and drawings also on display, varies in style and composition. Whilst some carpets have a strong ‘painterly’ appearance, others have a distinct bold and brightly coloured ‘Pop Art’ aesthetic, based on Allistair’s playful plasticine sculptures and vibrant iPad sketches. One carpet perfectly resembles its ink-pen drawing counterpart, owing to the carpet’s high knot count, and is more monotone in pattern – a dramatic departure from Allistair’s traditional kaleidoscopic colour palette.”
Curator Laura Dennis, November 2018
Allistair Covell: Canvas To Carpet at the Broadway Gallery
The carpets on display, or ‘woven paintings’, a tern that both Laura and the artist use to describe them, were handcrafted by the organisation Turquoise Mountain in Afghanistan and in Nepal by Rug Maker, to the artist’s designs. The exhibition successfully showcased how the expert weavers masterfully interpreted the rhythmic energy and spontaneous style of the artist, recreating every expressive brush stroke, splash of colour and hand-drawn shape into a woven knot.
Allistair’s paintings are inspired by his synaesthesic reactions and responses to music and sound. Synaesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon, a condition best described as ‘a union of the senses’ where one sensory experience prompts another. For Allistair, synaesthesia grants him the ability to see colour upon hearing sound.
Colour is an integral ingredient in Allistair’s work and he uses it with real confidence, describing music through gestural brush strokes and creating bold shapes that perfectly capture the spontaneity and abstract fluidity of music on a surface. Allistair’s mixes his synaesthetic experiences with traditional art subjects such as abstract depictions of people, places, events or memories.
The Symphony Series: I – IV (2016)
In the second room two short films illustrated the different carpet making approaches of each country, showcasing each regions’ varying traditions and production methods with some techniques having remained unchanged for centuries. Rug Maker’s Meet The Makers followed the Nepalese carpet making process whilst the video Carpet Making In Afghanistan produced by Turquoise Mountain, showed the weavers working in Afghanistan.
Along each step of the carpet making process the difference between each country is revealed, from the collection of the wool, the dyeing of the yearns to the finishing. In Afghanistan the weavers use the indigenous Karakul sheep’s wool whereas the weavers in Nepal work with imported wool from New Zealand. The dyeing of the yarns are similar in technique but differ in their sourcing: the dyes in Afghanistan are natural in origin (plants, vegetables and ground rocks) compared to the use of some chemical dyes in Nepal. Even though both carpets are hand-knotted, there is a slight difference in the technique between a Nepalese and Afghan knot.
A selection of the preparatory paintings which Allistair supplies to the weavers were on display in the second room, shown with the original weaver’s carpet graphs and samples of dyed yarn.
MEET THE MAKERS BY RUG MAKER VIDEO | ECLIPSE (2014) | EXCITED MELODY (2016) | PAINTED STUDIES & CARPET SAMPLES (2016 -2019)
CANVAS TO CARPET – THE PROCESS: ORIGINAL 3D PLASTICINE SCULPTURES & SKETCH BOOK DEVELOPMENT WORK FOR C.S.M CARPET (2016 – 2019)
Canvas To Carpet was the first public display of a small series of 3D plasticine sculptures, showing another aspect of Allistair’s practice and marking a new experimental direction for him. Initially Allistair saw these maquettes as three-dimensional paintings, natural extensions of his two-dimensional work but over time they became objets d’art in their own right, and later the medium of plasticine would assist in Allistair’s creative process when he worked on a commission for the London Design Fair 2018 with Craig & Rose and Calzada Fox.
Spinning Around (2017) | 3D plasticine sculptures & sketchbooks in vitrine | C.S.M (2017)
Allistair has named this series ‘Colour, Shape, Music’ and whilst this title best describes a majority of the artworks in the exhibition, this definition also suits the sculpture series. To further highlight the process and the concept of ‘canvas to carpet’, the first plasticine maquette Allistair created was interpreted as a watercolour drawing and then translated into a Nepalese hand-knotted carpet, created using New Zealand wool. The subtle difference in the pile height reflected the original design’s three-dimensional origins.
The Wave (2018) | Church Window (2004) | ORIGINAL PAINTINGS, SKETCHBOOK PAGES, CARPET SAMPLES, DYED YARNS, CARPET DESIGN GRAPHS IN VITRINE
As a visual pause and departed from the vibrant colour palette, the intentional black and white colour palette created a visual pause, two sketchbooks from Allistair’s time at art college showed visual journeys he’d recorded whilst travelling around London. One of the sketchbook pages inspired the surface pattern for the monotone carpet produced in 2017 by Rug Maker in Nepal.
London Streets (2017) | College sketchbooks (2005, 2006) | LGC 18 2018) | Somewhere In Between (2018)
It was whilst selecting artworks for the exhibition that both Laura and Allistair felt it would be interesting to revisit his graphic style from 2006 and so LGC 18 was created in homage to this style. An updated iPad version of the visual diary, digitally printed on canvas, chronicled Allistair’s journey to his studio and around Letchworth and a trip to London.
Jump (2017) | Come Into My World (2018) | The Night Cafe (2018) | Jane’s Dream (2018) | The Window (2017) | Melt (2018)
BROADWAY GALLERY Q&A with Allistair Covell
Broadway Gallery: What made you want to turn your paintings into hand-knotted carpets?
Allistair Covell: In June 2013 I saw an opportunity in COVER magazine, inviting artists and designers from across the world to ‘design a carpet’. The winning designs would be made into a hand-knotted carpet in Afghanistan and then presented at the world’s largest flooring trade show DOMOTEX in Hannover, Germany. Not knowing much about carpet production I sent in an image of a complex abstract painting and to my surprise my entry was chosen as one of the final six and entered into the international Carpet Design Awards.
In January 2014 the finalists, were flown to Germany to see the carpets for the first time and during the Carpet Design Awards ceremony I was named as the winner of the AfghanMade Best Young Designer Award. Winning such a prestigious accolade encouraged me to research this area of textiles and slightly refocus my practice to include translating my paintings into hand-woven carpets.
Broadway Gallery | The Symphony Series (2016) | London Streets (2017) | Somewhere In Between (2019) | The Window (2017) | Melt (2018)
BG: Why is music such an important part of your creative practice?
AC: Music is my biggest inspiration with the majority of my paintings named after the song or a lyric that inspired them. As a synaesthete, my paintings are heavily influenced by my sensory responses to sound. I aim to illustrate music on a 2D surface, capturing the rhythms, movements and characteristics of music through the application of colour, shape and pattern. Even though my paintings are abstract in appearance, they are also representational: an orange square is the visualisation of a drumbeat, a circle is the sound of a synthesiser while a paint drip shows the sound of a violin.
CANVAS TO CARPET – THE PROCESS: MELT (2018) – ORIGINAL PAINTING, CARPET GRAPH, DYED YARNS
BG: What are the main challenges in your practice?
AC: Working in two disciplines can be quite a challenge. Sometimes I have thought that not everything I paint can be easily translated into a carpet as certain brush strokes and colours might prove to be too complex but the Afghan and Nepalese weavers surprise me. Some carpets are so detailed they do look like paintings from a distance which is the effect that I want to achieve.
Another challenge is the time factor: it can take up to four months to hand-knot a carpet owning to the traditional techniques used. I find it fascinating that a sketch drawn very quickly on an iPad ‘in the moment’ when listing to a song can take months to interpret, translate and become a woven carpet.
Reprinted with permission from Allistair Covell: Canvas To Carpet, Broadway Gallery booklet © Letchworth Heritage Foundation (Feb 2019)
HOW HIGH (2017) | LET IT WILL BE (2017) | MR_47 (2017) | ECHOES IN RAIN (2017)
Raged Life Blog interview with Allistair Covell
In the final weeks of the Canvas To Carpet exhibition, Allistair was interviewed by Elspeth Jackson, founder and editor of Ragged Life. The interview covered a variety of topics including how Allistair began to work with weavers in Nepal and Afghanistan, why he refers to his artworks as ‘woven paintings’, to his favourite carpet in the exhibition. The interview with Ragged Life also previewed the ‘encore’ appearance of the Canvas To Carpet exhibition, which was called Canvas To Carpet: The Afghan Edit. This presentation occurred during the HALI Fair, part of a wider series of events being part of HALI London. The mini exhibition took place in the Mall Galleries in London in June 2019. The full interview can be found here.
PHOTO CREDITS: ALLISTAIR COVELL AND KATHERINE MAGER