Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

ArtCloth, Fairfield City Museum, Sydney, Australia

Art_Cloth_StarszakownaBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

ArtCloth: engaging new visions
Fairfield City Museum, Sydney Australia
August 29 – October 11, 2009

Must textiles be beautiful? Or should they be clever, packed with references that require a healthy dose of explanation or prior knowledge? In her catalogue essay, curator Marie-Therese Wisniowski explains that in the three quarters of a century since the Bauhaus closed its doors, “…contemporary fabrics have peeled away from the domestic and decorative arts.” She observes an ‘art’ metamorphosis underway in which “contemporary fabrics are now being cast as ‘fine art’ cloths.”

To evidence this future, Wisniowski has brought together an international group of twenty-one artists who all exhibit work of a similar length and width. These parameters promote the idea that cloth art makes use of the dimensions in which cloth is constructed. The benefit of this approach is that fabric is not forced into frames, trapped behind glass or displayed as poorly crafted objects. The drawback is the feeling of awkwardness some of the lengths adopt on the gallery wall. The weakest work in the exhibition feels insubstantial when displayed in this way; the strongest adopts this format with ease and often includes content that makes the bolt of cloth, suspended on the gallery wall, feel like a logical outcome.

Norma Starszakowna’s Razing/Raising Walls, Warsaw is a good example of this. Here the textured surface moves the work to something beyond the original cloth without feeling the slightest bit fussy or busy. Two strengths are at work here. Starszakowna’s material reference in Razing/Raising Walls, Warsaw is, at the title suggests, the wall itself. This allows a length of hanging cloth to feel like a natural, rather than forced format. Secondly, the techniques Starszakowna deploys are particularly innovative. This innovation makes it difficult to decipher individual techniques used to create the work, which in turn encourages the viewer to enjoy the magic of the textile surface and its message.

The striking simplicity of Ken Kagajo’s Discharge: Thundercloud also works well in this context. Kagajo’s mark making communicates tremendous confidence in the simplicity of his process with the outcome feeling entirely appropriate for the materials used. Notably it is the only work on display that drapes from the wall and ends in a roll, a decision that I think flatters the work and a system I have seen Starszakowna use at other venues. I’m unsure if the benefit comes from the cloth being pulled taught and grounded or simply because the gesture confirms, rather than avoids, the nature of cloth. Either way it works well.

Another memorable inclusion is Emerge, by Joan Truckenbrod, who was invited to open the exhibition. In contrast to the stark material concerns of Discharge, Emerge set itself apart with poetic intentions captured in a number of translucent, layered images. Jane Dunnewold also offers us a curious departure from the familiar. Her digital print from the Sacred Species uses photographs taken at the Perth Natural History Museum. The unexpected imagery of skeletons set in repeat suggests a slightly macabre failure of evolution.

The strongest works in this exhibition enjoy prominent placement in a difficult exhibition space. Julie Ryder’s Visionary is the exception. Her printed and hand painted circular motifs may remind some viewers of earlier work that captured delicate patterns from fermented fruit. Here the soft colours and layered imagery of Ryder’s work with dyes would have benefited from more breathing room. Instead this delicate work fought for attention in the corner of the gallery and was drowned out by nearby cloth in similar colours.

There are textiles in this exhibition that are breathtakingly beautiful. Others rely on poetry or concepts that benefit from a little explanation or prior knowledge. While many lengths were accompanied by an unusually lengthy text, this information did not always help to clarify the artists’ intentions. Those who adopted a “less is more” approach often provided the most accessible insights.  Claudia Helmer’s statement for Die Gedanken Sind Frei 3 & 4 proved the exception. Helmer’s balanced explanation of her professional life as a psychoanalyst and the subsequent role language plays in her artistic practice provided facts which gave the viewer further insight into her work without overcomplicating or forcing absent meaning onto her work.

Wisniowski comes to the conclusion that “…there is now evidence that a coalescing is taking place, which in the not-too-distant future, will infuse into our artistic sub-consciousness, new and consistent theories (with subsequent embedded style sheets) that will drive tomorrows fine art movements in fabric.” While this exhibition contains interesting work, I’m not convinced that this future, were it to arrive, plays to the strengths of textile practice today. I hope it is the theoretical breadth, rather than consistency, of contemporary practice that will mark a place for textile practices of the future.

One big question can’t be dodged: do we need the term “ArtCloth”? We have textile art and fibre art, fine art textiles and surface design. Already, these are categories that provoke consternation in some quarters, loyalty in others. Regardless of nomenclature, I do think it is time to relish the role a beautiful textile can offer. I also think that textiles provide a rich medium for sophisticated communication of conceptual ideas. But I don’t think that the textile needs yet another name.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2010: 56-57)