Exhibition Essays from “Fray”
INTO THE FRAY
BY CAROLYN BELL FARRELL
There is no present text in general, and there is not even a past present text, a text which is past as having been present. The text is not conceivable in an originary or modified form of presence. The unconscious text is already a weave of pure traces, differences in which meaning and force are united—a text nowhere present, consisting of archives which are always already transcriptions. Originary prints. Everything begins with reproduction.1 — Jacques Derrida
If we adapt the Derridean model of “textuality” as a framework for interpretation, we cast a broad net across the seemingly disparate artworks in fray. The nineteen artists in this exhibition employ a variety of media—from photography to sculpture—yet share a common aesthetic vocabulary, one that derives from the materials, processes and ornamental patterns associated with textile traditions. The word “text” shares the same etymological root as “textile,” “texture” and “tissue”—Latin word meaning to weave.2 Not limited to written documents, texts are symbolic expressions that assume innumerable forms. From our experiences, we construct and communicate meanings through the production, interpretation and articulation of texts. Engaged in a process of “weaving” together discourse and action, humankind generates identities, communities, ideologies, societies and cultures. Within the fabric of each text, we encounter accumulated sediments of meaning, often dormant or forgotten, yet already inscribed—textural strata of traces, and traces of traces, that are neither fully present nor absent.3 For the artists in fray, the history of textile practices operates as a set of preconditions, or inscriptions. Dipping into these archival reserves, the artists lift the traces of linguistic, cultural and aesthetic memories embodied in these collective histories. As the imprints and images pass through varying degrees of differentiation, distillation and interpretation, contemporary meanings are re-inscribed onto these pre-existing “texts.”
Hannah Claus employs contemporary technology to rework patterns derived from Victorian and Iroquois textiles. Overlaying culturally resonant images from her intertwined European and Mohawk ancestries, she explores issues around postcolonial identity. Claus’s looped video projection, Repeat along the border, begins with a shadow cast by a pinpricked paper dress. The tiny holes delineate an under-beaded border pattern on this representation of Iroquois regalia. As the ground shifts, the projected pattern is superimposed onto surfaces ranging from period fabrics to natural vistas: a road, a field and the sky, where a luminous expanse of white beadwork envelops the surrounding clouds. Eventually descending to rest on the horizon, the imagery is returned to its origin: the language of the land. In a related piece, Quilt, soft lights flicker beneath a worn family blanket bearing a chevron pattern. When visitors approach the quilt, the sensor-triggered lights generate images that resemble pattern fragments. As the audience grows, the discrete motifs become more prominent, and multiple, eventually stringing together in sequence. A Haudenosaunee beadwork pattern emerges. Rather than an inflection of the surface, the patterned articulation is summoned from within, resonating like voices from a distant oral culture.
By contrast to the culturally-specific patterns in Claus’s beadwork, Jeannie Thib approaches textile patterns as amalgams of influences embracing diverse cultures and epochs. Her large printed panels, Sub Rosa, Cluster and Influx, reveal broad expanses of repeating ornamental designs, largely inspired by 19th century French tapestries. Scalloped borders frame these patterned fields. Reminiscent of stylized swag curtains, they recall art historical devices used to depict drapery. Within the black latticework pattern, the artist introduces schematic diagrams of viruses (polio, measles, HIV, etc.). Like the pattern itself, the viruses function as coded texts referencing another sign system. Camouflaged, these crystalline shapes mimic the motifs of the printed surface. Alternatively, they imitate gemstones, embroidery or other embellishments. Foreign bodies introduced into the language of pattern, their presence is both ominous and seductive. As they infiltrate the all-over patterned territories, the viruses infect and colonize the neutral ground of the host.4
Pattern is predicated on the grid, an ordered field of elements that repeats indefinitely. Like Thib’s panel pieces, Sarah Stevenson‘s patterned installation disrupts the predictable aesthetic of symmetry and repetition. The multiple nylon stocking-covered cages inSmoke emulate glyphs lifted from a paisley pattern, yet the black curlicue shapes appear slightly irregular in form and placement. Teetering between figuration and abstraction, they resemble both stylized seedpods and casually rendered punctuation marks. Tenuously mounted on long, thin metal rods and placed in relative proximity, they form a loose black screen that floats in front of the white gallery wall. Admitting and conflating natural and cultural systems, Smoke evokes an order than is temporal, fluid and mutable, subject to disturbances and periodic fluctuation.
Memory is inscribed not only in the pattern but also in the materiality of the fabric, reflecting the indices of time, and registering its uses, stresses and exposure to the elements. While a sign of the material’s fragility or impairment, this physical evidence of wear may prompt intervention, and consequent reconstruction or reparation. Working with recuperated elements, Cal Lane, June Clark and Susan Detwiler resurrect the latent histories and meanings these found materials hold, while reinvesting them with renewed significance.
Sifting dry dirt from a construction site through an elaborate lace tablecloth, Cal Lane produces a negative image resembling an ornamental carpet on the gallery floor. Subtle disturbances distort the pattern’s uniformity: the pooling of earth at the “carpet” edges, the ridges of dirt caused by overlapping planes, and the lingering imprints of inquisitive visitors in the gallery space. The fugitive tracery of the pattern calls attention to the “carpet’s” transitory nature. On an immediate level, this ephemeral piece is constituted by trace, as if revealing the accumulation of dirt under a lifted carpet. On a metaphorical level, it suggests the figurative expression of sweeping things under a rug. Addressing the hierarchy of value associated with gendered work, Lane’s use of construction debris subverts the cultural connotations of lace as feminine, domestic, bringing it into the traditional space of the masculine, and more dominant, discourses.
Gathering detritus from the American highways, June Clark re-assembles these vestigial traces on an unprimed canvas, the distressed pattern recalling the stars and stripes of the American flag. Clark’s rendering of this iconic image no longer communicates the steadfast ideals and principles to which American society pledges its daily allegiance. Marked by intervals, gaps and omissions, the stability and integrity of its constitution is diminished. The rusted fragments of automobile wreckage that comprise this symbol convey and embody decay. The artist’s transcription of the American flag is more than an impassive, over-the-border commentary on the disintegrating social fabric of the United States. For Clark, a native New Yorker, Dirge is a personal lament for her homeland and the erosion of the values that shaped her identity.
Susan Detwiler‘s practice is informed by her daily experiences of living in rural Southwestern Ontario. To produce squirrel, raccoon and rabbit, her series of “animal skins,” the artist worked directly with the bodies of animals she retrieved from local roadsides. Sewing a second skin of wool over each corpse, she creates a “soft cast.” Like discarded socks strewn on the gallery floor, the soft sculptures are deflated, emptied of details, the surface features obscured, as if the bodies were turned inside out. Yet, clues to each creature’s character survive in this transfiguration, discerned by the generalized shape and colouration. When Detwiler removes the woolen casts from the carcasses, tangible evidence of blood and fur also transfer from these hosts, the visceral traces and corporeal memories recorded onto the new forms.
The boundary between the inside and the outside, just as much as between self and other and subject and object, must not be regarded as a limit to be transgressed, so much as boundary to be traversed… boundaries are only produced in the process of passage: boundaries do not so much define the routes of passage; it is movement that defines and constitutes boundaries. These boundaries, consequently, are more porous and less fixed and rigid than is commonly understood, for there is already an infection by one side of the border of the other; there is a becoming otherwise of each of the terms thus bounded.5 — Elizabeth Grosz
By definition, to “fray” is to cause to separate into loose threads or fibres at the edges or along the outside by friction or wear; to wear holes by rubbing or chafing; to unravel or become worn, particularly at the edges. Fray also denotes disturbance, conflict, a brawl.6 Operating at the periphery of textile practices, the artists in fray engage, resist, and subvert the tenets governing textile traditions. Loosening the restraints of convention, their aesthetic gestures contest a sure divide between public and private, outside and inside, presence and absence, known and unknown. The boundaries that lead towards classification and territorialization, and that circumscribe our habitual frames of reference, are both challenged and reproduced.
Susan Schelle‘s photographic prints, wolf bluff, shoal bay, riverside, naiscout and murray, depict domestic panoramas framed by images of commercially reproduced Oriental carpets. The carpet replicas reveal a hybrid of cultural traces, while eliciting a cultural memory that echoes of wealth, privilege and status. By contrast to the rigour and formality of the decorative carpet border, the interior snap-shots are informal, revealing the clutter of daily life and the texture of the moment. The evidence of activities left unfinished, of neglect and abandonment, prevail—the presence of someone or something now absent. The co-existence of different orders and temporal sensibilities in a single work induce disjunctions that transform the familiar into the unfamiliar, disparities accentuated by the artist’s use of different cameras, film and photographic perspectives.
Making herself vulnerable in the presence of strangers, Rachel Echenberg introduces intimate gestures into social environments. Exposing the vulnerability of the human body, her outdoor performances are often realized over an extended duration. Shot at Lahie Park in Montreal during a snowstorm, Blanket (snow) documents the artist as she walks to a park bench where she lies down for several hours. The falling snow eventually covers her entire body. In this video footage, Echenberg negotiates the simultaneity of public and private, exterior and interior, calm and anxiety, comfort and distress, while underscoring the dire conditions endured by the indigent in the absence of a social blanket.
Hand-sewn from fake fur and feathers, Therese Bolliger‘s enormous “boa” operates as a trace of a performance, and as a gesture in space. While indicative of a moment in time, the form itself is not static; the coiled, 177 foot-long “boa” can be easily reconfigured, possessing an inherent capacity for change. Simultaneously seductive and repulsive, Furfeather oscillates between an alluring feminine garment, casually discarded on the floor, and a shed animal skin. Obfuscating the boundaries between abstraction and representation, natural and artificial, its ambiguous status circumvents the closure of ready classification, inhabiting instead a “zone of indeterminacy.”
Engaging processes of unmaking and remaking, the artists in fray dismantle existing images and objects, while imaginatively reweaving the constitutive threads of convention. In each work, two textural strata are interwoven: one that adheres to tradition, and one that escapes it, establishing the parameters for this deconstructive strategy. Through their affective and conceptual transformations of existing texts, new articulations are produced. The resulting text becomes a woven “field of forces: heterogeneous, differential, open…”7 subject to perpetual production, reproduction and transformation.
Millie Chen‘s site-specific installation—with its exuberant and intentionally awkward title, Happy & Love—reveals the current perspectives of youth culture in Mainland China in the wake of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Double-hung curtains sewn from synthetic fabric purchased in a local Chongqing market transform a windowed corridor in the Textile Museum. Found texts transferred onto these diaphanous drapes temper the romantic ambience. Transcribed from Chinese with English translations, the texts cite excerpts from graffiti, text messaging, karaoke and other pop-culture sources, revealing disparate cultural influences, shifting styles and changing attitudes. A corollary of China’s unprecedented economic advancements, they reflect the more ominous, and unstable, undercurrents of society in response to this evolving commerce. Chen’s project ultimately generates a transitional space, an illuminated passageway, which communicates the veiled murmurings of ambivalence beneath a façade of defiant optimism.
Nadia Myre, an artist of Algonquin heritage, also explores issues of language, desire, identity, and reclamation. Myre’s Indian Act comprises 56 pages, Chapters One to Five, of the Indian Act, beaded over by hundreds of bead workers, male and female, in a collaborative activity. The words are lazy-stitched over with red and white seed beads, the colours alluding to racial differentiation and discrimination. A literal reading of the document that legalized the definition of Indian, and the colonial oppression it represents, is not only subverted but silenced. Myre’s obliteration of the words is an act of political defiance and a symbolic statement of self-definition. It is also a communal act of reclamation—spiritual, cultural and linguistic—a gesture that affirms the authority of oral tradition in the authentication of culture and the preservation of cultural identity.
Unraveling a sisal rope, David Merritt employs this material, and its attendant physical memory, to generate new forms. Produced by a gestural amassing of lines, his intimately-scaled “thought bubble” seems to float in the gallery space, suspended from the ceiling by single threads of sisal fibre. The apparent genesis of the image, an undifferentiated scribble, gives way to a discrete cursive text that conveys the phrase “you were made for me,” after a Sam Cooke song title. Equally invested with the potential to generate order or to dissipate into chaos, Merritt’s “doodle” approaches the limits of language, and textuality, precariously situated between unformed utterance and articulated voice.8
A crack has opened in habit, a ‘zone of indeterminacy’ is glimpsed in the hyphen between the stimulus and the response. Thought consists in widening this gap, filling it fuller and fuller with potential responses, to the point that, confronted with a particular stimulus, the body’s reaction cannot be predicated. Thought-in-becoming is less a willful act than an undoing: the nonaction of suspending established stimulus-response circuits to create a zone where chance and change may intervene.9 — Brian Massumi
The Derridean model of textuality proposes a tightly interwoven space of intense codings: “There is nothing outside the text. [l n’y a pas de hors-texte].”10 Inviting an infusion of thoughts and imaginings, the contemporary palimpsests in fray are characterized by an openness that both engages and problematicizes the categorical confines of traditional textile practice. While forming part of a continuum of cultural expressions, their artistic gestures have become liberated from this closely-knit territory of inscriptions, and the constraints of a fixed identity or purpose.11 Many of the artworks in this exhibition reflect alternative systems of order—systems that deviate from cultural norms to embrace natural phenomena, the contingent, incidence, and change itself. Admitting the flux of external forces—forces that generate innumerable internal connections, variations, affiliations and interminglings—they engage and reflect a dynamic process of becoming.
1 Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) 211.
2 Derrida refers to textuality as a fabric of grafts or tissu de greffes, deriving from the Latin definition of text: texo texere texui textum [to weave; to twine together, plait; to put together, construct, build]; of speech and writing, [to compose]. textilis -e [woven ,textile, plaited]. N. as subst. [a woven fabric, piece of cloth]. See: University of Notre Dame, Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid, www.nd.edu/~archives/latgramm.htm
3 In Of Grammatology, Derrida observes: “A text always has several epochs and reading must resign itself to this fact.” Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri C. Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976) 102.
4 In Crime and Ornament, Jacques Daniels observes, “The production of an ornamental body is the production of a reproduction. Production is driven by a prior form or image that is instilled with value and then consumed.” Jacques Daniels, “O: the apparatus” in Crime and Ornament: The Arts and Popular Culture in the Shadow of Adolf Loos, eds. Bernie Miller and Melony Ward (Toronto: YYZ Books, 2002) 152.
5 Elizabeth Grosz, Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2001) 64.
6 Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Lexicon Publications, Inc., 1988) 375.
7 Jacques Derrida, “Racism’s Last Word” (1985) in Critical Inquiry 12 (Autumn 1985): 290-299. In this essay, Derrida writes: “The text is always a field of forces: heterogeneous, differential, open…”
8 Gilles Deleuze notes: “It is when the language system overstrains itself that it begins to stutter, to murmur, or to mumble, then the entire language reaches the limit that sketches the outside and confronts silence.” Gilles Deleuze, “He Stuttered” in Gilles Deleuze and the Theatre of Philosophy, eds. Constantin V. Boundas and Dorothea Olkowski (New York: Routledge, 1994) 28.
9 Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations From Deleuze and Guattari (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992) 99.
10 Derrida, Of Grammatology, 158.
11 Grosz states: “Thought confronts us necessarily from the outside, from outside the concepts we already know, from outside the subjectivities we already are, from outside the material reality we already know.” Grosz, Architecture from the Outside, 60.
© March 2007, Carolyn Bell Farrell
SUBJECT TO CHANGE –
BY SARAH QUINTON
Cloth – whether it is woven on high-tech looms or made by hand; whether made of wool, cotton or ‘100% unknown fibre’ – is never still. When inflected with time or activity, cloth changes character. Dirty and porous, it absorbs stains and can be malodorous. Cloth has a memory: a worn linen shirt bears creases; when stroked in a contrary direction, a smooth velvet surface is disrupted; bed sheets are rumpled after a night’s sleep. These properties are metaphors for the symbolic cycle of decay and renewal, marrying the physical with the conceptual. fray presents works of art that speak to the disruption of social norms, the poetics of dismantling and reassembling workaday objects, and the longing embedded in the recuperation of cast-off materials. Flexible and unstable, cloth is provisional – subject to change. The Textile Museum of Canada houses a collection of over 12,000 handmade textiles. Like other collecting institutions, the Textile Museum strives to protect its fragile holdings from the effects of time. In his seminal bookArchive Fever, French philosopher Jacques Derrida argues that even though archives are a depository of civic record and public social history, they are stocked with “personal, intimate traces of private lives.”1 Museums provide a context for active translation; they are both guardians that strive to stabilize that which is destined to physically come apart, and vehicles that incite personal memories, emotion, inspiration and renewal. fray stands for the impossibility of the fixity of things and ideas.
Drawing is an important aspect of David Merritt‘s studio practice. With a pencil, he maps out linear networks that meander over the paper’s surface and pool into stream-of-consciousness notations that are represented as water-coloured areas that contain fragmented linguistic moments. In fray, Merritt installed clouds of gently tangled sisal threads that extend these networks into material form. (The artist pulled apart hefty load-bearing ropes to disclose these delicate filaments.) As much ‘not there’ as ‘there,’ the drawing/sculptures seem poised to fall apart with a gust of air. /h/ (sisal) takes the shape of a column of unbound energy formed around a core of atmospheric conditions. Pre-linguistic guttural utterance, the work’s title is a phoneticization of an exhalation from deep within the body: an iteration of that which is beyond words. Its individual fibres make irregular wavy lines, exhibiting a physical memory of their former tightly wound ropes. now, and… harnesses this natural crimp and releases that energy into cursive script which is embedded in the field of sisal. Phrases such as ‘now and again,’ ‘now or never, ‘ ‘now and always’ visibly emerge (popular song titles picked from the artist’s collection of memorabilia) and tug on personal memory banks in a physical realization of the ineffable.
Liz Sargent‘s Into the Web and 8 Wool Blankets are, like Merritt’s sisal drawings, made of unheralded materials. Into the Web is composed of two chairs and an ottoman. Sargent methodically removed their upholstery fabric and pulled each section apart thread by thread. From a height of about six feet, she dropped the filaments one by one back onto the host furniture’s frame, forming a random, lofty heap that is springy and voluminous – difficult to reconcile with the mechanically compacted structure from which they were extracted. Similarly, 8 Wool Blankets is made up of old blankets that Sargent cut into strips, coiled into bedroll-like tubes and stacked discreetly in the corner of the gallery, softening one small aspect of the room’s hard edges with its frayed cross-sections. These dismantled materials are contrary to the preservationist mode of a museum – yet they reconcile their physical qualities before they were woven into quotidian fabrics with their inevitable destiny – to return, fatigued and transformed by wear and tear, to an incomplete condition with countless possibilities for renewal. In the artist’s words: “The object or material itself becomes a tangible archive, on which actions are inscribed that resist the fleeting nature of memory.”2
Doug Guildford‘s large crocheted sculptures are works in progress, poised to return to the artist, who will loop and re-loop the copper cable and durable polyethylene twine into ever-larger organic masses. Precious and lacy, heavy and robust, Doily, Mat and Wasp withstand and even benefit from exposure to the outdoor elements. As part of his performative relationship to these works, the artist literally immerses them into the landscape, often on the Nova Scotia seashore, where they inhabit the perpetual motion where the sea meets the sand. This could be seen as a potentially destructive act, were the materials not already proven to be able to withstand and ‘soak in’ the forces of nature. Guildford ‘grows’ his spiral systems like generative topologies that take on a different shape each time they are installed because they are soft and collapsible. They are strong, and can withstand continuous flexing without rupturing, whether on the beach or in the museum.
In his essay ‘Textile Art – Who are You?’ cultural theorist Sarat Maharaj interprets a key term from Derrida’s thinking: “An ‘undecidable’ – as Derrida puts it, is something that seems to belong to one genre but overshoots its border and seems no less at home in another. Belongs to both, we might say, by not belonging to either.”3 Maharaj foregrounds the quilt as an example:
However much the ‘quilt’ aspires to the state of ‘artwork,’ it does not shake itself free of references to the world of making and producing. Hung up on a wall, framed, put on display, it catches our attention as statement of form, colour, and texture. We soar away with its allusive, narrative force. But we never quite manage to set aside its ties with the world of uses and functions, with the notion of wrapping up, keeping warm, sleep and comfort, some feeling of hearth and home. In all of this, it is no less easy to blank out memories of its links with the domain of processes, crafts, and techniques.
Half on-wall, half-on-floor, it stands/lies/hangs before us: everyday object and artwork in one go. Domestic commodity which is at the same time the conceptual device. The quilt stands/lies/hangs before us as a speculative object without transcending the fact that it is a plain, mundane thing. Not entirely either and yet both, an ‘undecidable.’ …Has the quilt not always straddled such a double-coded space, an ambivalent site of this sort?4
Kathryn Ruppert-Dazai, Luanne Martineau and Kim Ouelette create narratives that are embedded in ‘plain, mundane’ fabrics such as blankets, cotton sheeting or swaths of knitting. For all of their mundaneness, these textiles are no less important to the artists’ conceptual devices than the images that they comprise. And certainly, ‘some feeling of hearth and home’ is indeed near to these artworks – perhaps more accurately suggested here as some other feeling of hearth and home as the artists depict natural disasters, delineate their innermost fears and evoke feelings of alienation that teeter on a threshold where everyday objects meet works of art.
Autobiography led Kathryn Ruppert-Dazai to improvise her artistic methodology. She adapted her figurative skills as a painter and learned how to knit, sew and crochet so that she could join the physically expressive qualities of these processes to her images’ narrative force in a gesture that, like Maharaj’s quilt, straddles ‘a double-coded’ space. When she had difficulty learning these skills on her own, she would seek out help from friends and family in an informal environment of hand-me-down knowledge, a socially-held bank of memory and experience that is personal and intimate. Her figures are crocheted, knit and woven with an affective rough-and-ready hand. This crude facture is a reminder of the agency of the handmade object. Ruppert-Dazai’s “big, scary textiles”5are emotionally touching narratives that are imbricated with pathos that is revealed by holes caused by dropped stitches and threads in disarray.
Broken threads figure prominently in Kim Ouellette‘s stitched landscapes on pieces of vintage wool blankets. With delicate traceries of thread delving in and out of the blankets’ lofty depths, one side of the drawing’s surface leaks through to the other, confusing front with back. This palimpsest hints of layered readings. The imagery for Dog Team and Climbers (orange) is traced from historical photos taken by Byron Harmon, the official photographer at Banff National Park in the late 1880s. Translated into soft materials, these outdoor adventurers are shifted from a venerated, historically valued site of adventure and conquest (the authored, ‘official’ photographic document) to a terrain that is tamed by domesticity and intimacy. Tangled in Blue/Lake on the Woods is an image of a great Canadian icon, the single tree: Ouellette’s thready version is perched atop a knoll – a stretched to distortion blue-stripe wave with a sky-blue background. The nostalgic blankets that Ouellette has chosen to inscribe are soaked with the spirit of times gone by.
A reading of the physical characteristics of Luanne Martineau‘s Panorama Flood 1 and Panorama Flood 2 reveals these long and narrow horizontal pictures to be neither textiles nor drawing; rather, each is an amalgam of processes that, even under close scrutiny, is difficult to grasp. Fragmented vignettes fade in and out of the pure white cotton background: rustic fence gates, pools of flood water, picturesque landscapes and decaying rural idylls make for a dystopic atmosphere seldom seen in textile milieux. Framed and under glass, these unanchored images oscillate between fine silk embroidery, thinly drawn ink lines, sewing thread and paint. The expanses of space between each isolated image cuts short any narrative potential – only imaginary threads can weave order into Martineau’s ambivalent hand. Sweetie, a sculpture laid informally on an ersatz tabletop, thrives on this ‘family’ of ambivalence. Sweetie stirs the calm waters of doll culture by presenting a persona that is at once a warm and cuddly toy and a bizarre figure the size of a small child. Made of richly dyed polychromatic felt, the figure’s cardigan-skin morphs into intestinal tubes – this bulge is a breast, a bladder…? Felt is a nomadic material that can be traced back as far as the 7th century BC, an ancient fabric that has adapted and survived. In his essay “Felt’s Alterity,” theorist Kenneth Hayes ascribes felt, through myth and structural analysis, with an outsider status that is thick with socially constructed meanings:
The knot by which felt is made is an ancient figure for despair at the intractability of the world; it inspires dreams of a release that can only be imagined as magical. In mythology, a single thread sufficed to undo the winding labyrinth, but the Gordian knot had to be severed. All woven textiles constantly threaten to unravel, and this unraveling is a compelling metaphor for the loss of a hard-won and carefully maintained order. This ‘coming undone’ is irresistibly imagined as the dissolution of a self that we understand as a kind of woven tissue. Felt, on the other hand, does not ravel.6
Susan Detwiler‘s group of three sculptures – Green Plot, Blue Plot and Black Plot – fit sideways into this theme of knotty despair. These spiral-rolled discs are agglomerations of women’s dresses, slabs of industrial felt and swaths of human hair that threaten to come unravelled from their layered strata where the body, its skin and its clothing are folded into one another. Hair, like wool, is an attribute of the body. It is a stand-in for absence, as well as a symbol of desire. Like Martineau’s Sweetie, Detwiler’s floor-based sculptures are visceral expressions that cry out to be touched even as their grotesqueness fends off that urge. Could it be that a body has dissolved among the tyrannies of domestic life, leaving these pools of residue as memento mori? Each sculpture exudes a personality that is fashioned by old clothing, colour groupings and squeezed-in memories. Martineau and Detwiler work productively with their materials’ capacity to collapse, to fold in upon themselves and form shapes that simultaneously allude to figuration and abstraction, producing inconclusive hybrids that enact Maharaj’s ambivalent site of the familiar quilt, “… everyday object and artwork in one go.”
It is difficult to address the subject of textiles without inculcating ideas about the body and clothing. There is an undefinable margin where the body and textiles join; where the garment supports the body’s shift from a natural space where nudity, bodily functions and uncleanliness are acceptable, into a social realm where the body is typically dressed in clean, socially appropriate attire. Clothes present and prepare the body to engage with a group and become accepted in social situations: those individuals who do not adhere to such conventions break taboos and run the risk of disaffection.
Allyson Mitchell‘s wall hangings titled It Ain’t Gonna Lick Itself and Orangina are a pastiche of misogynist representations of women as seen in soft porn and advertisements as well as bumper stickers and t-shirts. They are montages of fun fur, shag rugs and chenille bedspreads – seductive, cozy materials that belie their political messaging as they depict human-like female characters in provocative scenarios, engaged in acts of sexual play modeled after Playboy magazine images. Mitchell’s subjects exude personal agency, which disrupts aspects of dominant Western culture such as the ever-dispensable female nude, in a conflation of hair, fur, skin and clothing. The artist is working both with and against the ‘idealized’ female, exploring the fringes of representation. From one perspective her subjects are indeed discomfiting as they tread nakedly on taboo terrain; but their carefully modulated deep-pile flesh tones also locate the figures’ surfaces as animal skins, apparently a socially acceptable, albeit unclothed state. Mitchell’s artworks are agents of change and proponents of a status quo – all the better to expose disingenuous social mores.
Mortality is often a driving force in the creation of art. Death is at once an end and a beginning, represented by images of the body and its vital functions. Questions of autobiography and mortality surround the process-based, performative practices of Sarah Maloney and Nadia Myre. Maloney knit her larger-than-life Feet and Vertebrae, Sacrum, Coccyx out of white cotton string, working from anatomical engravings. As though the body’s skeleton is in need of more fortification than its natural condition can provide, the artist made custom ‘garments’ for every little moveable part. Her protective intervention allows for the body’s inevitable decline as much as it allows her to indulge her own flesh and bones. Skin, a self portrait, mimics the contours of the artist’s body with thousands of stitched-together tiny pink glass beads that form its human-scaled surface. Imbued with the subtle irregularities of the artist’s labour, Skin is a physical manifestation of time and, like a well-loved garment, exudes a ‘lived-in’ quality. Like Allyson Mitchell, Sarah Maloney has a desire to make the body visible, gendered and energized.
Nadia Myre‘s The Scar Project is an experiment in collaboration. It is an invitation for participants to actively explore personal memories by physically shaping their experiences of being wounded into corporal, emotional and spiritual scars. Myre provided blank ten-inch-square stretched canvases, or surrogate skins, into which participants were invited to trace a representation of their scars. Equipped with scissors, needles and thread, skilled and unskilled hands depicted wounds (and contributed to a web of stories recorded in a book nearby) that told of personal undoing, growth, guilt and retribution. They sewed to heal the wounds inflicted by history, to hide pain and to make it public. The torn and mended canvasses were added to those already on the wall in a massive installation where symbolic and figurative images of piercing and fixing, disfigurement and healing, were assembled in patterns of autobiographies that melded into a collectively accrued archive. From intimate and personal beginnings to a public display of many voices, The Scar Project embodies Derrida’s idea of the public archive as something that is “stocked with personal, intimate traces of private lives.” 7 Even in matters of public record our own stories are provisional – subject to change.
1 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression , trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
2 Liz Sargent, artist statement, 2006.
3 Sarat Maharaj, “Textile Art – Who are You?” Reinventing Textiles: Gender and Identity, ed. Janis Jeffries (Winchester: Telos Art Publishing, 2001) 7.
4 Maharaj pp 8-9.
5 Conversation with the artist, Spring 2006.
6 Kenneth Hayes, “Felt’s Alterity,” Felt, ed. Kathryn Walter (Toronto: The Museum for Textiles, 1999) 7-8.
7 See Derrida, above.
© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada