Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Anna Von Mertens: Emanations in Cloth


Anna Von Mertens

“Backwards” is how Anna Von Mertens first describes the approach to her most recent series of quilts, explaining that her new working process was “determined much more through technique” informing research, rather than research determining process. Systematic data collection has been a hallmark of Von Mertens previous work: childhood heights measured against the door jam in the family home, ocean currents and sea depths, the colours of sunsets and constellations in the sky at key points in history, have all provided regulations by which she has coloured and constructed her hand stitched compositions. Von Mertens admits that when she first lit upon the subject of her most recent series – auras – she found it to be both “too absurd” and one that “wouldn’t go away”.

In 1936 the philosopher Walter Benjamin observed: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” Throughout his now celebrated essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Benjamin considers the peculiar attributes of reproductions and determines that the “presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity”. This thinking – and an offhand comment about how her new experiments with painted dyes seemed to suggest auras – led to Von Mertens most recent series of quilts: Portraits. She explains: “If Benjamin’s ‘aura’ is the sense of awe felt in the presence of a unique work of art, my works acknowledge the myth built around each painting as it becomes more a story of the artwork than the actual artwork itself.

“Flipping Benjamin’s definition of the aura, my auras reference what is layered over the unique work of art,” Von Mertens explains. Her ‘flip’ borrows from the pseudoscientific world of aura photography, which claims to be able to record an individual’s ‘aura’ or spiritual energy through a colored halo recorded in moving and/or still images. (The explanations for these colored halos are numerous and include the presence of heat or moisture, rather than the purported emotional energy field.) Von Mertens describes aura photography as an image that is both an “abstract and specific”, layering the subject’s tangible silhouette with an intangible image of colour. In her statement for the Portraits series she articulates her curiosity and skepticism, “The strange bedfellows of technology and New Age beliefs are brought together in the aura photograph, a process involving hand sensors that translate the electromagnetic field of an individual into a Polaroid print…The tension of belief informs this work.”

Each portrait selected for the series enjoys canonical status in art history: Mary Cassatt’s aura, after Degas, Frida Kahlo’s aura, with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, Gertrude Stein’s aura, after Picasso, Madame X’s aura, after John Singer Sargent, Arrangement in Grey and Black’s aura (Whistler’s Mother), after James Whistler to name only a few in the series that currently numbers seventeen. Each is also known to the artist predominately through reproductions of the original, remembered as a slide from art history class or seen as a jpg on the Internet. While the finished quilts’ colours often share a resemblance to the original portrait, this similarity is a quirk of the research process. Von Mertens’ palette was in fact established to match the personality traits of artist and subject unearthed during research to create what she describes as a “reverse engineering” of the environment in which the original portrait was painted. Rather than mechanically conjuring a supposed aura, Von Mertens looked to historical facts surrounding the creation of each of her reference portraits: “My process involves researching the relationship between sitter and painter, the character and personality of both, and the historical context of the painting. I then paint dye onto fabric to create an aura in the same proportions as the original painting. Superimposed is a layer of hand stitching that includes the silhouette from the source painting and the subject’s chakra pattern. The result is a defined figure with an aura-like emanation.”

Von Mertens admits to seeing textiles in an “oppositional relationship” to the tradition of painting for much of her career and has in the past exhibited her quilts on low frames of bed-like proportions. Her 2006 series As the Stars Go By moved her work back to a conventional setting on the wall by way of the proportions of the film screen. The format and orientation of this series commented on the trite narratives churned out by the Hollywood machine and projected onto film screens, in contrast to the literally earth changing moments captured by Von Mertens’ quilted constellations. In Portraits the work remains on the gallery wall and adopts a scale identical to the original painting. The wall, she explains, now suggests the idea of the aura’s “energy moving outwards” and the aura of the sitter “looking back at you”.

In her newest work these intangible themes continue, but rather than the relationship between subject and artist, Von Mertens has moved on to explore the overlapping auras of couples. Adam and Eve – who she coins the “quintessential couple” are the first pair to undergo her scrutiny. “While I admit to an element of the ridiculous – painting auras of dead people – these works are sincere portraits,” she explains. “As I researched how to read the prescribed distinctions of the tones and placement of colors in an aura photograph, I found myself getting seduced by belief. I found that in building a narrative of the subject’s life through color, an emotional presence surfaced. Allowing myself to believe seemed part of the process.”

Putting the thinking and planning aside for a moment, Portraits deserves recognition as Von Mertens most stunningly beautiful series to date. Her working process has often resulted in unusual combinations of colour and pattern, but here the tension between the controlled and un-controllable elements has allowed a little more of the artist’s instinct to the flourish. But I have to confess that my experience of the work is mediated through digital images rather than firsthand experience. When interviewing Von Mertens by telephone I fret that I might be missing some of the stitch work present in the quilts because I am not viewing the series in person. What am I missing? She is quick to remind me that Benjamin was also acutely aware of this increasingly common predicament in visual culture. In fact, several layers of reproduction are already at work: Von Mertens worked from memories that prompted a search for digital images of master works of art, translated these into the quilts that I then experience, not in a material sense, but as digital images. Viewing the images reproduced for this article represents yet another step removed, but not necessarily in a way identical to the reproductions experienced by either the artist or myself. This seems, in part, to be the point.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2010: 12-15)