Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

A Fine Line: Anne Wilson Profile

Anne_Wislon_TopologiesBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

A Fine Line: Anne Wilson Profile

The American artist Anne Wilson walks such a fine line between the disciplines of Fibre Art and Fine Art that her work is reason along to accept the futility of such exclusive, highly policed territories. For the past decade, hair has played an integral role in Wilson’s two and three-dimensional works. Early investigations play with definitions of the genuine and simulacra in pieces that appear, on first glance, to be animal hides but are in fact large-scale embroideries. The ‘Natural Orders’ series and ‘Second Skins’ soon give way to an unsettling sense of mimicry and distortion that arguably engages with a disregard for the sanctity of the original sacrificial surface. By the early 1990s, Wilson’s focus turned to human hair. In works such as ‘I Cut My Hair’, long hanks of the stuff are presented in a clinically white and distancing frame. But as with the earlier investigations, all is not quite as it appears. Blond hair is in truth bleached, straight locks turn out to be artificially created curls and hair extensions betray themselves as severed additions no longer concealed among natural roots.

Tim Porges in Wilson’s monograph published by Telos Art Publishing (2001) determines these early works to be a ‘false start’ of sorts. While these early works certainly merit consideration, Porges’ remark may hold some weight in light of the complex work to follow. From animal skins and bundles of human hair, Wilson turned to a far more sparing use of the material, which until recently remained the mainstay of her visual vocabulary. Using hair as an intimate and evocative embroidery thread, Wilson began sewing small passages of linen and damask cloths. ‘Hair Work’ compiles a collection of these studies into a single work. The piece is reminiscent of an embroidery sampler, with various techniques assembled in a methodical pattern that reappear again in later works. While the components of ‘Hair Work’ are intriguing, they do feel like fragments, snippets of a conversation cut from the whole. Divorced from their original context they struggle to establish a dialogue on a level other than the material. Instead they look out, representative of a sketchbook of ideas which, if we fast-forward, appear in a full stream of dialogue in later works.

It is Wilson’s ‘unmending’ of worn fabrics that presents this dialogue in full flood. Works where the whole cloth is visible, albeit with attention paid to the absence rather than the presence, allow the viewer to sense the enormous intent behind this seeming contrary process. In the ‘Mendings’ and ‘Grafts’ series of the mid-1990s, Wilson has worried away at the holes and tears of crisp white fabrics. What was once pressed clean and used a luxury, is now exposed for all its faults. The failure of the woven structure is emphasised and the stitch used to hold open and reveal, rather than repair and close the damaged cloth. The fine hair threads gnaw at the edges of these areas brimming with ambiguity and commanding a beguiling beauty amongst countless contradictory associations of disrepair and dubious hygiene

Yet throughout these works there is an atmosphere of scientific cleanliness. The damask bases are, and were, very clean. The visible stains are not new, still moist and transferable, instead they are stubborn stains, no longer threatening and set in their own mordents. No longer able to contaminate, they remain ingrained and it is safe to assume that many attempts at removal have rendered them innocuous. In contrast, the hairs that cover the surfaces of other works are less easy to dismiss. Like the shoulders of a jacket that has caught falling hairs, they are immediately threatening in the intimacy they invoke. Casually brushing aside fallen hairs from a partner’s clothing is a gesture of intimacy. The animal hairs that insist on covering the inside of a home are ain annoyance that is tolerated, perhaps even unobserved by those who call the space home, but often silently trouble a newcomer to the space.

The chronology of hair, its different life stages that correspond to the aging process and the ‘discoveries of inattention’ that Porges notes, coalese in a year-long work ‘A Chronicle of Days’. Allowing herself a single day to complete each section of the work, Wilson assembled a record that references private, but daily, rituals. From a distance the small embroidered passages, again on the pressed white fabric surfaces, look like the spotting of blood stains, easy to link with the menstrual cycle, the female body’s way of telling time. The pattern of smudges and spots that are assembled again project a comforting cleanliness, in spite of the references they project due to the use of archival framing. The studies are both unbearably intimate and immensely serious, countless tissue samples divorced from the corporal which now demand to be handled under the professional dictates of science, rather than a visceral squeamishness.

By the late 1990s two substantial works ‘Lost’ and ‘Found’ read as culminating gestures in the hair dialogue. Here, the concentrated response to the tears and stains found in earlier works are disbanded and the entire surface covered in varying densities of fine embroidered hair. Dark hair covers a curtain like fabric slung over a white chair in ‘Lost’. The gathers of the fabric present worrying crevices, strung with a heavy leather cord, areas where the control over the surface becomes questionable and the substance itself all the more disturbing. ‘Found’ hangs comfortingly flat against the wall, folding only at the bottom and onto the floor where debris such as hairs find a more accepted resting place. The colour is also a little less natural, the vibrancy of a one-in-a-thousand natural red head, or a brave dye job. Either way the colour becomes more painterly and somehow les private than the dark folds of ‘Lost’.

‘Feast’ signified a departure for Wilson that has proven vital to the growth of her visual vocabulary. In ‘Feast’, the cloth is returned to its original role as a table covering. The oversized dining table flirts with the domestic, but in facts makes a substantial departure from these associations. Rather than the domestic, Wilson’s work moves beyond these boundaries towards studies of a social rather than intimate nature. Holes continue to be emphasises and ringed with embroidered hair or built up layers of overlapping stitch, but the horizontal plane and the scale of the table surface read more like a plan for urban design, of a world shrunk to miniature.

Landscape, aerial views and the infinitely complex networks of both the textile and now the internet are all apparent in Wilson’s most recent work, “Topologies”. Also presented as a horizontal surface, “Topologies” is denied a static identity. First displayed in the spring of 2002 at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial in New York, the work has been reassembled at every exhibition site since then in a slightly different composition and the title altered to include the dates of the exhibition. The title of the work exhibited at the Whitney was ‘Topologies (3-5.02)’. A version of twice that size was exhibited in late 2002 at MassArt in Boston as ‘Topologies (9-12.02)’ and in early 2003 as ‘Topologies (4-5.03) at San Diego State University in California. Future exhibitions will bring about further permutations of scale and orientation.

Themes of deconstruction and disrepair are shifted in ‘Topologies’. Rather than working outwards from a flaw in the woven structure of damaged cloth, Wilson creates pared down studies in deconstruction and construction. Lace – from precious antiques to cheap commercial fishnets – is snipped down to reveal the primary repeating cells of the structure. Pinned to the table surface of piled like the bounty of miniature mines, these studies evoke the fundamental components of the textile, the single and most simple unit where threads connect. Hair makes a far more modest appearance in ‘Topologies’, perhaps even unnoticeable unless you search for it.

The setting of the San Diego State University Gallery offers an eloquent counterpoint to the sharp edges that captures Wilson’s framed works such as ‘A Chronicle of Days’ and the horizontal display of ‘Topologies’. Housed inside the heavy plaster walls of an adobe style building, the atmosphere is at once contemplative and sheltered, vital to an appreciation of Wilson’s work. Studies have shown that the average painting in a gallery gets little more than a cursory glance by attendees conditioned to the short attention spans that television viewing and now, the internet, have so successfully cultivated. This attitude will not work with Wilson’s work, which demands observation, silence, and a steady gaze. In fact, the works seem reluctant to reveal themselves with speed. It puts the viewer quite at the mercy of the work. Engagement comes easily. Answers, if that is what one is seeking, must be earned.

Embroidery magazine (September 2003: 40-43)