Sunday, June 22, 2014

Must fibre artists be outliers?

One of the associations I belong to is, at heart, a group of plein air painters. I joined the Hudson Artists because they are a local community group and offer exhibition opportunities, but I often feel like an outsider within the group, especially when they are packing up their easels and paints and heading off to an outdoor retreat.

Likewise when I visit galleries in Montreal. So many of them feature work that is conceptual or installation or video. Having my work accepted in these galleries seems like an impossible dream.

I ask myself, "Why do you persist with this medium? Isn't it obvious that there is no serious audience for work in fibre?"
Segment of Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1070
And then I read something like the current blog item from Elizabeth Barton. On June 10 her post, titled "Stitched Histories: A Memory of the World", opened with a reference to the Bayeux Tapestry, which is listed as one of UNESCO's 250 "Memories of the World", along with the Gutenberg Bible and the Magna Carta. As Barton writes, "...the scope for decoration, art and story telling has always been a strong part of the craft of making marvellous tapestries, weavings and embroideries."
One of William Morris' many designs for textiles and wallpaper, c. 1880
She refers to champions of textile art, like William Morris, and to feminist artists like Judy Chicago, who used needlework to make a powerful statement in The Dinner Party, which I saw in Montreal in 1982 and, more recently, in its permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum.
"The Dinner Party", detail, by Judy Chicago, 1974 - 79
A profile on TextileArtist.org of ten contemporary artists who work in embroidery celebrates their use of hand and machine stitching. Reading about them and seeing how they express their ideas with innovative combinations of embroidery with paint and photography, plastic and paper, encourages me to see fibre as a viable medium.

To quote Elizabeth Barton, "It is the extraordinarily tactile element of fibre art that appeals so much, I think.  Free flowing stitches (whether created by hand or machine) and the sewn edges of fabric shapes (whether appliqu├ęd or pieced) reveal the personal gestures of the artist in the same way that drawings do."

Barton quotes reviewer and critic Ciara Connolly, who asks, "What is the point of a [fibre work] that looks like a painting?” and who concludes that it "is the very looseness, the wabi-sabe, the mark of the hand, that is so evident in much fibre that differentiates it from painting – and makes it so effective because we can almost see the artist at work."

Connolly, in turn, quotes French poet Edmond Jabes. “I dreamed of a work which would not enter into any category, fit any genre, but contain them all; a work hard to define, but defining itself precisely by this lack of definition, a work which would not answer to any name but had donned them all”.

I am inspired by this vision of what textile art has been, and what it can yet be. I am encouraged that Montreal's Concordia University offers undergraduate and graduate programs in "Fibres and Material Practices". And I am more than ever convinced that groups like SAQA, which work towards placing fibre in art venues worldwide, deserve my support.

1 comment:

Maggi said...

I am glad that you came to the realisation that your choice of medium is vindicated. There is a quality that appears in textile art that cannot be found anywhere else and the art world is, I believe, beginning to recognise this.