Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Tom Lundberg: Contemporary Narrative Samplers


Contemporary Narrative Samplers

Every stitch in the small-scale embroideries of American textile artist Tom Lundberg forms part of an enigmatic narrative that relates to three substantial series in the artist’s recent career. Each work is fashioned on a detail of dress. The Footstep series takes the outline of a shoe print as its form. In Pocket, that site which accumulates inattentive ink stains is unpicked and set free from the backing of the short. In a similar manner the Viewfinder series represent a collection of badges, heavily stitched but waiting for the final tacking stitch to secure it to another layer of fabric. In each series, aspects of narrative follow over and repeat, while other elements remain specific to single works. Lundberg explains of his process, ‘Glimpses of everyday life merge with fragments of memory. Needle and thread offer a way of working that is simple and direct. This process is slow and deliberate, in contrast to the fleeting moments that trigger each piece.’

Several motifs recur throughout Lundberg’s body of work: flames, footprints, and foliage. In many pieces there is conflict between the ominous and the patient, tension between the fertility of nature and the profligacy and destructiveness of mankind. But in Lundberg’s world the cycle is constantly shifting; neither good nor bad remain polarised for long. It is work that requires consideration and contemplation, but ultimately frustrates a conclusive narrative reading and reminds the viewer of their place as observer rather than creator. This fragmentation is far from unintentional as Lundberg explains that he is interested ‘on both a literal and a metaphorical level with the notion of details or layers which are perceived, even when unavailable or withheld’. For Lundberg, textiles vividly illustrate the phenomenon of fragments through their piece-by-piece assembly. The intimate scale and narrative intent remind one of the tradition of samplers, painstaking work which taught women the rudiments of alphabet and language while instilling precise and patient embroidery skills. Here the sampler is Lundberg’s own, containing a private language of symbols and sentences.

In Change in Plans two halos glimmer with an inexplicable presence similar to the Japanese concept of the mabarosi, a strange light that draws men to sea against their better judgement; ominous yet impossible to ignore. Swirling skies or seas are mapped from east to west and north to south. While the title indicates a change of course, the footprint has, perhaps ironically, landed were X marks the spot. In contrast Fire Walking has stepped upon a black hole; perhaps the only black hole with a light at the end of the tunnel. The edges of a rainbow forest are on fire as though one were viewing the destruction of the world through rose-coloured glasses. The foot shape that reappears in Warm Winter could equally belong to Achilles’ heel as to the god Nike. Natural and manmade again seem to conflict; this time it’s crazy paving versus orthogonal steps and the power of fire to both destroy and comfort.

Narrow Escape is composed of three visual layers: the first gushing floodwater under a bridge of unending arches; the second a jigsaw of fabric fragments retted and singed; and the third the threatening curls of one of man’s most effective inventions – barbed wire. Each layer speaks of containment and the failures of containment. Perhaps, on a lighter note, it offers us the artist’s version of the game paper, rock, and scissors? Water cannot contain rock, wire or fabric, but destroys fire. Wire and fabric cannot contain water. Fire can consume fabric, but is extinguished by water, and on and on. Pennina Barnett, in A Stitch Out of Time, notes a dichotomy embedded into the language of textiles: for embroider is not only ‘to make splendid’, but also ‘to besmear with dirt or blood’; stitch not only ‘to fasten together… by sewing’ but also ‘a sharp sudden local pain’. This inherent contradiction seems at the heart of much of Lundberg’s work; richly worked layers depict the saw teeth and flames of their undoing.

Since in 1979 Lundberg has been a Professor of Art at Colorado State University. Some of his references to vegetation and fire can be linked to his interest in horticulture and the fire-prone climate of the region in which he lives. His numerous solo and group shows and presence in private collections throughout the US are testament to the public acclaim his work has enjoyed. Of all the textile arts, embroidery has a long reputation of contemplative, repetitive work appropriate for the female mind and a desire to mend and make do. Lundberg questions such limited functions. The small scale of the work instils a sense of intimacy and the possibility of disclosure. The consideration and intent observed in the detail and control hand stitching allows may be one of the reasons why it seems natural to want to uncover a definitive narrative in each work. Instead, Tom Lundberg offers us encoded samplers with no definitive key; created to stand alone and speak for themselves.

Craft Arts International (No. 60, 2004: 114-115)