Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Worked or over-worked?

Emperor's Coat, by El-Anatsui
So much of the appeal of fibre art seems to depend on process. Artists speak of an almost spiritual experience of "working the cloth", "the meditation of knitting", and "the mantra of hand-stitching". We talk about "the hand" of the cloth. Think of embroidery, tapestry, weaving, traditional quilting, all highly labour-intensive.

How often are fibre artists asked, "How long did it take you to make that?" How often do we hear the exclamation, "You must have so much patience"? These comments make me wonder if my work says anything to the viewer other than, "This must have taken a long time to make."

Shown here is a wall-hanging by Ghanian sculptor El-Anatsui, made of discarded metal bottle caps, stitched together with wire by the 16 - 20 hired workers in his atelier. Viewers are amazed by the beauty he has achieved by intensively working everyday materials, and his work is often compared to tapestry. (His work speaks on another level: the role of alcohol in the colonization of Africa, and the detritus left in the wake of imperialism.)

On the other hand is the pursuit of "freshness" in the medium of painting. Painters are cautioned against over-working, of "giving too much". To counter the impulse to fuss, to clutter, they are urged to remember that "Details do not a painting make". I subscribe to a weekly newsletter from painter Robert Genn, who recently warned his readers that "Small additives often lessen the big picture." He reminds us of the words of Robert Browning, "Less is more."

Glow of Expectancy, by Elizabeth Barton
Is there a place in fibre art for work that relies on strong composition and sophisticated use of colour for its impact, rather than on intensive stitching? I'm thinking of the work of Elizabeth Barton. Do you know of others? I haven't seen Barton's work in person, and I don't  know how densely stitched it is. But it does have a forceful, fresh quality. She juxtaposes those flat, coloured shapes much as painters do.

To what extent is intensive manipulation of the material essential to the appeal of fibre art? Is it impossible to "overwork" art made of cloth? Would some of those heavily-worked, intricately-designed Japanese quilts benefit from a whiff of freshness?

And getting back to the colonization theme, is it possible that one of the functions of needlework in the past was to pacify women who were denied other outlets for creativity and autonomy?

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