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From Back to Front
Jessica Hemmings, Curator
From Back to Front gathers together recent examples of tapestry weaving that expose the construction of weaving: warp threads are left dangling, even the frame of the loom remains integral in some finished works. These visible traces of the weaving process remind us of the vast potential of the woven structure. While some artists draw inspiration from the physical limits of the woven structure, others weave partial passages or deconstruct the weave to communicate messages of emotional or physical damage and recovery. From Back to Front focuses on tapestry weaving that – for varied reasons – is intrigued by the edges and limits of the woven structure.
Today few weavers outsource the production of designs they have actively participated in planning. British artist Tracey Emin works with the West Dean Tapestry Studio in England to execute her plans. But Emin is not a weaver. Confusingly artists such as the American painter Chuck Close and more recently British potter Grayson Perry plan large-scale works that are produced by others. While these textiles are often referred to as “tapestries” they would more accurately be credited as Jacquard weavings on large-scale industrial looms. In these textiles the artists’ hands are conspicuously far away from production. While this approach has its place in the varied world of textiles, artists that work at a distance from the loom are unlikely to actively challenge the physical potential of the woven structure. Close and Perry instead attend to the optical potential of woven cloth. (This difference may, in part, explain something I’ve always felt looked uncomfortable in Perry’s textiles – as though the artist’s ability to think around the circumference of a ceramic vessel has been unrolled to create a flat weaving that would be more comfortable if allowed to wrap back around something.)
The artists included in From Back to Front are weavers intimately involved with the execution as well as the conception of their work. Some, like British artist Lucy Brown explain that weaving “reminds me of architecture, lays its foundation and then builds”. Others, such as the American artist Jennifer Hunt (recipient of the ATA International student Award in 2010) describe weaving as “another way to paint”. What this diverse group share is an approach to weaving that searches for its limits: warp or weft are left dangling (Brown, Høibo, Hunt, Röndahl, Swailes), includes spaces where the cloth is never woven (Høibo, Hunt, Pyles), are intentionally unwoven (Brown), kept on the loom (Høibo, Röndahl, Sørli) and even given to nature to unravel (Röndahl).
For example, Swedish artist Emelie Röndahl’s “Return of the weaver part II (weaver begins)” is exhibited with mirrors to allow the viewer to see the back. Röndahl explains the work’s title refers to her own return to weaving and the “collection of knowledge I have gained so far” as well as the early video game LOOM she played as a child. The cartoon-like format of the work is based on fictional and real photographs of Tensta suburbs of Stockholm where the artist was born and lived in her early childhood. Built in the 1960s Tensta has become known for its multicultural population, high unemployment and rising crime rates. The cityscape Röndahl depicts is quite literally in flux: unraveling, but equally capable (with threads at the ready) to be rewoven into new compositions that adequately reflect the future.
If “Return of the Weaver” scrambles chronology, “Shipyard Loom” belies tapestry’s reputation for slow, monotonous making. Here Röndahl and fellow Swedish artist Anna Ehrlemark worked together over a week at the Skver Shipyard in Croatia harvesting materials from the shipyard for the project. The frame of the weaving is integral to the finished piece, which will stay in situ until the weather wears it down.
“I think of tapestry as closer to sculpture than textiles,” reflects British artist Katharine Swailes, before explaining that in works such as “Curled Linen” “the back is as important as the front.” Dangling threads suggest an unstable structure – the unnerving potential for deconstruction that re-sensitizes us to the labour involved in making. In Swailes case this material instability is combined with another instability of contemporary life: the rapid obsolescence of technology. “Enclosure”, for example, is woven in the proportions of a zip disc – once the standby for large data storage but obsolete today. Where Röndahl’s works are large or elongated, Swailes background in costume design for film determines a very different choice of scale. “On film, one inch will look enormous,” she explains of her tendency to weave small, hand-sized tapestries.
Jennifer Hunt constructs her three-dimensional studies by first “pulling spools of yarn for colour in an immediate way” and then “working intuitively at the loom”. Rather than a technical exercise, Hunt treats “each square as a compositional study.” Warp threads are left dangling, or cut and beading added. Hunt cites the importance of an “uninhibited approach to the tapestry format. It is my intention to eradicate the idea of tapestry as we know it and represent it as a medium,” she explains.
Her approach is similar to Norwegian artist Ann Cathrin November Høibo whose weavings are presented with the warp ends loosely knotted. At times the weft covers only half the warp, or the weaving is left on the tapestry frame suggesting an activity disrupted. The precarious atmosphere gives the viewer greater insight into the structure of weaving and the maker’s investment of skill and time. While the physical vulnerability visible in these examples can be read in entirely material terms, a number of artists also use this sense of instability to communicate corresponding states of emotional unease.
American Nicole Pyles accepts that the general publics’ perception of textiles remains associated with women’s work. In “No One Can Hear You” Pyles uses this connection to address the topic of violence against women. She deploys a “symbolic, self-made alphabet to reproduce a combination of personal writings and found poetry… My deliberate confusion of language conceals the legibility of certain autobiographical experiences, while allowing their separation from my own body.” Pyles weaves entirely from materials found or free, a rule she admits forces her to “let go of some of the control” weaving otherwise offers. The “slow process of tapestry” is likened to the “slow process of recovery from violence” and as Pyles explains both demand “diligence and focus”. But in her final step Pyles coats the textile in glue, making the flexible rigid, the adaptable fixed: sealing her own intimate code and the history it contains.
British artist Lucy Brown weaves equally intimate content but rather than fixing the potentially unstable structure as Pyles does with glue, Brown focuses on the deconstruction of the weave. She explains that her often brutal treatment of second hand clothing exposes the integrity of the remaining material. The scale of her installations relates to the body and the clothing the body inhabits. Where Plyes refers to traces of a language that once captured a physical event, Brown explains her interest in tapestry’s merging of “physical interaction with technique” allowing, one can imagine, the emotions suggested in titles such as “I Lost Myself Because I Thought I Wanted to be With You Forever…” to be acted out in gestures suffered by the cloth.
Norwegian artist Tonje Høydahl Sørli may use the guise of speech bubbles and cartoon characters in her work, but attention to her choice of titles and the “incomplete” production held by the tapestry frame suggest alternative interpretations. Like Röndahl and Høibo, Sørli includes the tapestry frame in her finished work. Loose weft threads peek from behind the weaving and small punctuations float in the woven field, disconnected from the main body of the weaving but held intact by a warp not released from the weaving frame. Titles such as “You Wish it Could Change” and “They Say that in Life We Make our Own Luck” belie the children’s cartoon aesthetic. Instead we are reminded of the complexities that so often lie beneath the surface – and perhaps a desire to return to the innocence of a child’s happiness.
Tapestry weaving requires commitment that is difficult to accelerate. It is particular in its methods and it demands disciplined production. Tradition and skill have their purpose within culture, but so too does action that questions the status quo, rethinks the familiar and reminds us to be alert to reliance on familiar perspectives. The front may just as easily be the back. It all depends on what you are hoping to find.
(All quoted material from author’s interviews with the artists January – May, 2015.)