Åse Ljones: a delicate touch

Åse Ljones: a Delicate Touch

“I have always had nature close to my body and mind,” explains Åse Ljones of the childhood she enjoyed in her native Norway. “I was born and grew up on a small farm in the countryside. There were no roads for cars, and we walked one hour to school travelling through the forest on a narrow path. All these experiences and memories are important in my work today.” Ljones now divides her studio time between weekends in the countryside and weekdays in the coastal city of Bergen, where she studied textiles at the National College of Art and Design in the late 1980s.

Norway’s picturesque landscape and the milky light of Scandinavia are palpable in the delicate works Ljones hand stitches. Surfaces are peppered with the tiny hatch marks reminiscent of Agnes Martin’s delicate drawn lines; quiet, contemplative work that reveals the maker’s hand through the smallest of deviations from the established pattern. Also apparent are circular primhol stitches, a technique found in traditional Norwegian costume from Hardanger, the region where Ljones grew up. Loosely translated as “queen stitch” the technique creates miniature perforations across the fabric surface to expose the next layer of fabric beneath. The result, particularly in Ljones’ nearly monochrome studies, is a textured surface reminiscent of the many miniature tubes and crevices that create coral. Through these two distinct types of mark emerge an element of op art, materially static surfaces that test the eyes by seeming to move or shimmer. While these ever changing textiles can be understood as part of our increasing interest in dynamic surfaces, Ljones achieves this result through a decidedly low-tech approach. In lieu of electronics or clever gadgetry is her knowledge of fibre and its ability to reflect light depending on the way (right or left; S or Z) it is twisted.

Writing of Ljones work in 2007, the Art Historian Therese Hauger noted that a “combination of ethics and aesthetics is important for Åse.” Her comment reveals much about a quest for material beauty tempered by a desire to limit waste and commit time to labour. As early as the final year of her studies, Ljones’ interest in recycling led her to work with fish skin. From these shimmering surfaces she then moved to large-scale works constructed from silk and rubber patterned with abstract motifs created from cut holes. Extensive travel, first a study trip to Senegal, followed by further trips to Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa provided inspiration into the ways materials such as rubber tyre inner tubes from cars and bicycles can be recycled. These trips cemented Ljones commitment to the possibilities of hand production, in particular a commitment to work in an extraordinarily time intensive manner, prioritising intention over speed.

Hand stitching is a slow contemplative effort, particularly when you consider the detail of stitch Ljones uses to populate her embroideries. But from small, discrete gestures, far larger thematic considerations emerge. For several decades now her work has moved back and forth between abstraction and the figurative, at times exploring the pure material possibilities of the stitch, elsewhere using the most minimal of shapes to touch upon some of the weightiest issues of life. Yvonna Demczynska, Director of the flow gallery in London, which represents Ljones in Britain, observes a “haunting beauty” in Ljones work that she notes has “stayed with me since my first visit to Norway in 2004 when I was immediately drawn to the subject matter, landscape and family, the Scandinavian minimalist aesthetic and the intricacy of the stitches.”

Even when moving towards abstraction, simple shapes tend to anthropomorphise in Ljones’ work, such as the “family” of trees central to Sensing the Wind. At times this softens the blow of disarmingly weighty works such as the pathos and grief apparent in The Four of Us. Composed of three upright trees, a fourth lies felled in the right hand corner. Through a small collection of stitches the broken stump of the felled tree’s trunk remains visible, suggesting that roots from which each have grown remain intact despite the loss of one.

The delicacy of Ljones’ touch proves both seductive and disarming, a far cry from the subversive stitches we have come to expect of contemporary practice. Pieces are often conceived and displayed as a series. “Both the individual and the group are very important,” Ljones explains of her use of the multiple. “I often compare my series art to real life: one person and the group is as important as another. They all are in a relationship to each other. If you pick one piece away it will not be complete.” Maternal Grandmothers, for example, presents a series of chalky family portraits, faces ringed in halos that stare out at the viewer. A more abstracted series in darker colours sits below, suggesting fingerprints or the rings of tree trunk from which we can determine age. Composition and technique suggest that there are elements across the generations that are constant, patterns that repeat again and again. But at the same time, there is not a single stitch identical to the next, a reminder that in spite of genetics we are all ultimately individuals.

At first glance recent work such as You Look at Me and I Look at You feel lighter, less burdened with a sense of loss or lineage. But even here there is an ongoing suggestion of the individual placed in what could be read as an emotional landscape, either in the isolation of success (on high in I Look at You) or despondency (the chasm of You Look at Me). In contrast, Ljones most recent Untitled, a series of sheep making their way across the ridge line, continues her fascination with the individual versus group mentality: striking out alone towards independence and with it isolation, or sticking to the plan and following a well worn, and supported, path. Åse Ljones ability to translate traditional techniques into utterly contemporary work looks to have balanced this age-old riddle handsomely.

Dr Jessica Hemmings is a Reader in Textile Culture at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton

Embroidery magazine (Sept./Oct. 2008: 22-27)