Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Anna Von Mertens’ Conceptual Craft


Anna Von Mertens’ Conceptual Craft

In her novel Still Life A.S. Byatt’s narrator questions, “How would one find the exact word for the colour of the plum skins?. . .There was a problem with accurate notation, which was partly a problem of sufficiency of adjectives. Do we have enough words, synonyms, near synonyms for purple? What is the greyish, or maybe white, or whitish, or silvery, or dusty mist or haze or smokiness over the purple shine? How do you describe the dark cleft from stalk pit to oval end, its inky shadow? Partly with adjectives; it is interesting that adjectives in prose or verse style are felt to be signs of looseness and vagueness when in fact they are the opposite, at their best, an instrument for precision.”

Anna Von Mertens quilts are, to borrow from Byatt, precision instruments. Cold statistics, bare diagrams and descriptions of places she has never witnessed are translated into the colour and pattern of functional objects. Rather than aspire to a spot on gallery walls, the quilts are exhibited as they would function, on horizontal bed-sized platforms. In this orientation they begin to evoke the domestic, but stop long before the messy stains and detritus of sleep found in works such as “My Bed, 1998/1999” by the British artist Tracey Emin. Perhaps a more fair comparison, despite its place on the gallery wall, is Robert Rauschenberg’s early use of the quilt as canvas in “Bed” from 1955. But Von Mertens quilts also inhabit a space quite their own, like giant architectural blueprints of an unknown land.

As is often observed of first novels, the early work “Self-Portrait” is autobiographical.  But instead of a recognizable portrait of the upright body with its familiar contours, Von Mertens documents the topography of her body lying under cloth. Using a laser leveller, lines charted in quarter inch increments create a topographic map of her exterior. When translated into stitch the overall composition is reminiscent of a thumbprint. At the centre a red square contains the topographic map of the artist’s pelvic area. The fabric references both the onset of menses as well as the custom in some cultures of displaying the nuptial sheets as proof of a bride’s virginity. The public display of such events is contrasted here with the modest and concealing role that bed linen also plays. This translation of data from a common or public perspective into an unusual or private one is a technique that recurs throughout these works.

“I Was Taller from 1978 to 1987” also maps the body. Like many families, hers recorded the height of brother and sister between the years 1975 and 1990 in marks on a door jam. Von Mertens uses colours associated with boys and girls (blue and red/pink) as colour coding to plot the bands of colour that make up the quilt. This documentation of growth is continued in the stitch pattern of neuron development for boys and girls, stitched in pink and blue to distinguish the two charts. While a systematic use of colour coding distinguishes male from female, Von Mertens suggest that the quilt’s strength lies in its ability to contain both closeness and difference in the same space.

Ironically, the content of “Self-Portrait” and “I Was Taller…” are straightforward when compared to the far more obscure juxtapositions that make up the core of her work.  For example, “Depths and Heights” translates the terrain of the sea floor at the ocean’s deepest point in the Mariana Trench, the shipping routes taken to measure the depth of the ocean floor and the percentage of the earth’s surface above and below sea level in thousand metre increments. The diptych “Black and White” is derived from a view of the world in which views are polarized to either white or black. The spider web of white stitched thread across the surface of “Black” is the energy pattern of a nuclear explosion. The stitch pattern for “White” is taken from the same mushroom image but rotated. Von Mertens explains, “I like how the typical nuclear explosion gets obscured when seen from an aerial view. It is from this angle that the chaos and symmetry play together beautifully, and the horror of what the stitching actually represents is camouflaged or forgotten.”

While these works translate measurements and statistics into colour and pattern, other works address the challenge of capturing colours described by language. The diptych, “Via/ Navajo White to Tusk Tusk, Moonlight Sonata to Blue Waltz, Delicate Yellow to Celandine, with Via/ Lee, Mom, Chris, Liz, Jessica and Lisa’s least favorite color, the New Hampshire sky color at 4p.m. described by Mom over the phone, the color of my morning pee” is based on hardware store paint chips and personal interpretations of the paint chip colours. On one side, Von Mertens proves her considerable skill in the dye lab by matching her dye colour to the paint chips. But on the other, she interprets verbal, often anecdotal, descriptions of colour onto cloth. The artist explains that the title “Via” refers to the holes that allow information to pass from one layer of a circuit board to another. While the holes are identical, each circuit pattern (stitched on the top of each quilt) is different. In other words, while the points of connection are the same the routes they take are unique.

Finally, “Western Sky/The Sky of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle at 4 p.m., October 23-29th.” is based on the artist’s interpretation of verbal descriptions of the sky given by friends living in various cities at different latitudes along the West Coast of the United States at the same time of day. In this work we must shift Byatt’s query to ask if in fact we have enough colours to capture the words, charts and statistics unearthed by Von Mertens. While each colour palette and stitch pattern is derived from exceedingly specific references, their beauty and sophistication belie a seemingly random genesis. It is here, at the meeting of material and concept that Von Mertens work may be understood as conceptual craft.

Surface Design Journal (winter 2005: 27-29)

image: Anna Von Mertens West and East (2003)