The human texture
In the midst of our digitally mediated and increasingly disembodied world, artists and their audiences are falling in love with the tactile nature of fabric and textiles. Sue Gardiner finds out why textile art is the next big thing.
Dowse Director Courtney Johnston would put her money on it increasing; New York Times critic Roberta Smith says a big “wow” is in order; South African art critic Mary Corrigall calls it the new art-art; global auction house Christie’s says it’s increasingly collectable; Frieze.com writer Kirsty Bell says it’s a haptic antidote to our screen-based lives.
Just what are the world’s critics, commentators and curators talking about? Capturing their attention has been a ‘fibre fanfest’ as contemporary artists embrace the medium of textiles to address issues such as labour and mass production, queer identity, activism and feminism, sustainability, and the fluidity of architecture and space. The impact of a digital life and desire for more connections to the handmade and the everyday world are driving many artists to seek the tactile, sense-based nature of textiles. Just as the potter’s wheel and kiln made a comeback into art schools and studios recently, so too are the sewing machine, loom and needles.
Textiles are surging back into play in exhibitions too. In Auckland Art Gallery’s 2016 exhibition Space to Dream, Recent Art from South America, visitors were invited to wear tent-like capes by Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica from his famous 1960s Parangolés series, which are like habitable paintings coming to life. They will be in a major retrospective at the Whitney, New York, in July 2017. The 2016 Biennale of Sydney focused on previously neglected but influential textile artists like Sheila Hicks and Israeli choreographer/textile artist Noa Eshkol. It included Eshkol’s 1970s ‘wall carpets’ and Hicks’ monumental fibre installation, along with the ‘ghost net’ installation made from fragments of fishing nets, fabric and rope by the group of Torres Strait Island women calling themselves Erub Arts Collective. These works revealed the extent to which art and textiles have engaged in a long and productive dialogue across cultures for many decades.
Since the 1960s, waves of feminist art have engaged with textile and craft traditions being linked to ‘women’s work’. Honouring this feminist history, Melbourne artist Kate Just’s Feminist Fan series, which began in 2014, is an act of true devotion. Her knitted portraits of famous feminist works include Sarah Lucas’ Self Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996) and Carolee Schneemann’s performance Interior Scroll (1975) in which the artist pulled a scroll from her vagina. Just’s work entailed 80 hours of knitting to make a single work. It was shown in New York in 2016 and will appear in The Public Body .02 at Sydney’s Artspace in July this year. “The works are incredibly devotional, bringing me closer to the artists who care about feminism as a force,” Just writes from the Sanskriti Foundation in New Delhi where she created a large-scale ‘memory quilt’ using images and texts from Indian women activists and artists.
A vast range of fabric and fibre practices were evident at the 2016 art school graduation exhibitions. In a series of paintings Elam School of Fine Arts Masters graduate, Emma McIntyre, set out to disrupt the largely male dominated, modernist history of the grid by looking back at the history of craft and a foundation in weaving. She investigated women artists from Western and non-Western cultures who’ve fallen through the cracks in the history of abstract painting. “The grid as a motif both abstract and repetitive could be seen as originating from cloth and the traditional processes of making cloth, quilts and the like,” she says.
Wanting to connect her recent paintings with life inside and outside the studio, she energises and activates grid lines which take on textile references as they move and weave across the surface. They lean one way or another, stopping short of the edge, stretching towards and emerging from the sides like a garment wrapping the body or a quilt draped across a bed. Acidic yellows and soft pinks trigger nostalgic memories while drips of paint on the surface disrupt our understanding of the sequence of each layer and dots on the surface become windows, revealing networks of hidden grids in the background. The layers of thin, washy paint seem more like time-worn, faded cloth and the linen substrate emphasises the textural quality of these paintings.
During her final year of art school McIntyre experimented with the direct use of textiles, eventually settling on a collection of second hand jeans, worn in by anonymous past-owners. Sewing pieces from each pre-loved pair together, then stretching them onto a frame to make a ‘painting’, McIntyre wanted to ‘remove’ herself as the maker of the work and allow the surfaces to reveal traces of other people’s lives. In her next much larger denim work she will collect jeans from people she knows, allowing them to become an essential part of the work.
London-based, Christchurch-born artist Emma Fitts also engages with people, places and histories through textiles. In 2014 she returned to Christchurch for the Olivia Spencer Bower residency. “With my work increasingly focusing on the archive, textiles provided ways to introduce ‘feeling’ into the histories of the people I was researching.”
Adjusting to post-earthquake Christchurch and the sudden death of her mother a year earlier, she wanted to engage with the place in a very material way: “to have and make something graspable, as a way of grounding myself in what felt like a chaotic place and situation. In a very real way I was faced with the frustrations of memory and how to capture and hold onto the ‘feeling’ of someone”.
During the residency Fitts explored the lives of two creative women from the UK, painter Marlow Moss (d.1958) and gardener/sculptor Rowena Cade (d.1983) and two from New Zealand, feminist economist Marilyn Waring and Olivia Spencer Bower (d.1982). Choosing textiles that connected to each woman’s biography, she created a series of textile banners bearing stitched fabric pieces for garments she’d designed for each person. Other banners were dedicated to Rita Angus, Rhona Haszard, Louise Henderson and Ngaio Marsh. “By mixing all those histories, textiles gave me a way to situate these women not only within a creative context but also within a context of social, economic and cultural history.” Titled Fit Out For Olivia Spencer Bower (2015), the banners were exhibited at the Ilam Campus Gallery and later in 2016 at CoCA, in Christchurch. Attracted to textiles for their fluidity and sense of movement, Fitts encouraged gallery visitors to weave in and around the soft textile architecture of the installation, which reflected the architectural layout of the walls in Spencer Bower’s home. Fitts comments, “Textiles have been the invisible partner to architecture, and I’ve been inspired by the work of Anni Albers and women from the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop who used the language of architecture and painting to establish a discourse for their textile work”.
The curtain has played a major role throughout art history – as a compositional device and a symbolic object. New Zealand artist Ruth Buchanan often uses the curtain to dramatic effect and her 2013 exhibition, On or within a scenario at Hopkinson Mossman, featured three curtains. Entering the exhibition you were greeted by a bright yellow curtain that evoked the sort of sunlight that sears your eyes when you look directly into it. As you moved through the gallery two more curtains structured the space into hemispheres of experience and sensation, containing a sound work and a vitrine of memorable objects. One hand-dyed silk curtain was a transparent membrane through which information, light and energy could pass. The other was a thick hessian curtain that prompted sensations of weight and gravity, inviting a more grounded, tactile response. Moving through these zones of sensation within the architecture of the gallery, you felt as if you were witnessing the cerebral architecture of your own brain.
In her major 2016 exhibition Bad Visual Systems at Adam Art Gallery, Buchanan again deployed curtains to manipulate viewers’ experiences, disrupting expected systems of encounter and manoeuvring us around, away from or close to the other artworks. The title of the show, which included work by Judith Hopf and Marianne Wex (both of whom live in Germany), draws on the idea first articulated by feminist theorist Donna Haraway that: “self-identity is a bad visual system”. Buchanan was drawn to this notion because it echoes her own belief that there are powerful forces vested in architecture, art, language and society – and the organisational systems within them – that affect how human subjects behave and interfere with how they know themselves.
Buchanan consciously chose to work with two other women artists of different generations to position her thinking within a feminist history and discourse.
Male artists too are incorporating stitched textiles, weaving and felting in their work as a way to reassess gender hierarchies and seek greater diversity. Thai-born Auckland artist Sorawit Songsataya, winner of the 2016 Waikato National Contemporary Award, is making interesting new work using knitting and felt. Songsataya says, “I guess gender politics are imbued within my work – sometimes quite overtly, other times more concealed. Because I’m a queer poc (person of colour), utilising both machine (male) and craft (female), traditionally speaking, there will always be these negotiation and reclamation aspects between both ends of the spectrum.”
Songsataya merged the digital and the tactile in Coyotes Running Opposite Ways (2016), a multi-part installation at Artspace as part of Potentially Yours, The Coming Community, curated in 2016 by Tendai John Mutambu. In a digital animation outstretched fingers played traditional string-games while rippling squares of knitting were like nets catching a series of floating objects. Nearby was what looked like a hut or nomadic shelter made from wooden twigs, hand moulded clay sticks, wool, copper wire, knitted squares and string – all of which seemed to have jumped effortlessly from the animation into the gallery. Washed with an even yellow light that was part omnipresent digital glow, part utopian sunshine, the hut was built through a process of collaboration with others and radiated a strong sense of ingenuity and sustainable possibilities. Insulating its floor and making it look cosy were felt squares imbedded with strands of coloured fibre and made using a FeltLOOM machine. Hanging on the wall like warm coats were more pieces of felt.
While making the work Songsataya remembered women selling river fish at the market in his Northern Thailand hometown. “The hardship that they/we have gone through, the meaning of ‘making’ a living and how different that was back home, especially for women and for my mother, was pushing my creative energy and thinking. I guess my choice of materials reflects the many heroines that I respect back home,” he says.
The handmade, collaborative process of making the work shifted the emphasis from individual maker to collaborative effort. The fused, entangled, interlocking structure of felt reinforced this notion of smoothness and cohesion. “I love the idea that all the fibres of the felt are equally supporting and are in relation to each other and that individual parts are connected rather more chaotically and almost by chance.”
Melbourne artist Paul Yore has been described as an Australian version of Grayson Perry, and works with hand-stitched, mixed media tapestries. He sees himself as an archaeologist of pop culture and his flamboyant, extravagantly detailed tapestries express the sensory overload of information from the “crazy world we live in”. Speaking to a Miami newspaper during the 2016 NADA Art Fair, where he exhibited with Melbourne’s Neon Parc gallery, Yore reflected on his role as a queer artist. “Being a man and working with textiles, or being a queer artist and having my work so visible – that’s a political act. It’s the more important politic than some of the more overt elements in the work.”
The overt elements have created controversy for the artist. In Miami his work Spectacular, Spectacular, with its drag-aesthetic of fairy lights and sequins, featured the cut-out face of Donald Trump spewing excrement from his mouth and Bin Laden holding the Twin Towers in his hands. Stitched felt letters spelt NO ONE IS INNOCENT. In another 2016 work, Hold On Until It’s Over, orifices seep, eyeballs bleed and a scarred, hooded figure proclaims, “You look like my next mistake”.
It’s clear that as textiles and art have become interwoven in recent years, a fertile ground for experimentation has emerged – one that fully engages the senses. As US artist and textile collector Richard Tuttle believes, textiles help us sharpen our senses and draw attention to our experience of the physical world. With such hands-on haptic sensibility, the biggest challenge in the exhibition context is resisting the urge to touch the artworks!
Sorawit Songsataya will exhibit new work in Dark Objects, a group show curated by Faith Wilson at Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, from 4 March to 23 June 2017.
Emma Fitts: From Pressure to Vibration – The Event of a Thread, curated by Melanie Oliver at Dowse Art Museum, is from 25 March to 2 July 2017.
Christina Read, the 2016 Olivia Spencer Bower Foundation Art Award recipient, will exhibit recent fabric collages at Ilam Campus Gallery, Canterbury, from 29 March to 27 April 2017.