Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Contemporary Textiles: the fabric of fine art (Black Dog Publishers)

Contemporary Textiles Black Dog book cover


Contemporary Textiles: the fabric of fine art, Black Dog Publishing, Nadine Monem, editor

The “inspiring and evocative work being done today, forever cement[s] textiles’ place at the heart of contemporary art” writes Nadine Monem in her note from the editor for this publication. What follows is well-illustrated overview of contemporary textile art, organised in the somewhat tired categories of drawing, painting, sculpture and space. In her comprehensive essay “Histories, Terms and Definitions” Professor Janis Jefferies sets out a much-needed background to this often-misunderstood area of visual culture and argues for the central role the textile has played in fine art of recent decades. A second essay by Bradley Quinn notes, “Although fabric traditionally underpins most paintings, neither art theory nor professional art practice have a vocabulary that articulates the role the textiles play today.”

The author(s) of the short texts that introduce each artist are not mentioned, but there is the sense that these voices are not entirely in agreement about the role of the textile in art. Rosemarie Trockel’s work is described as  “landmark in history of textile art”; Wendy Huhn’s is considered “somehow simultaneously within and outside the craft of fine art, taking up a hotly debated argument recurrent in art textile.” Agreement on nomenclature is a petty goal, but it is interesting that the tensions such as these are not more overtly debated in the text.

The acknowledgements on the final page “extend our sincerest gratitude to all the artists who applied to be part of this book.” This may explain some surprising omissions from the line up: Alice Kettle would seem an obvious inclusion under painting, as would Anne Wilson for space. Neither of the recent winners of the Jerwood Prize for Applied Art: Textiles, Caroline Broadhead (1997) and Shelly Goldmsith (2002), get a mention. This may be because the content of the publication includes key artists that the authors felt necessary (such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude or Tracey Emin) coupled with work culled from a call for submissions. The upside of this is the range of nationalities represented. There are also unexpected additions, such as the textile rich Cremaster cycle of films by American Matthew Barney.

A thorny question remains. Would Matthew Barney or Tracey Emin describe themselves as textile artists? The title of the text partially side steps this problem by positioning textiles as “the fabric of fine art”. But I suspect many of the more familiar artists included would recoil at any version of the term. Instead this book and those who research contemporary textiles (myself included) appropriate these practices because of their articulate and wide ranging use of cloth. The artist’s blessings do not always follow.

I’m left unsure if the purpose of the publication is to carve a niche of recognition for textile art (or art textiles, or fibre…) or to argue for the place of textiles within fine art. I know the title suggests the latter, but much of the content suggests the former. Perhaps most telling is the book’s cover image: a wine coloured plain weave cloth attributed to no one. Is this a desire to avoid pigeonholing a single artist or an inability to agree on just what textiles, when used in non-functional and often conceptual roles, is? Nitpicking aside, this publication does provide significant inroads to our understanding of contemporary textile practice. It also raises as many questions as it answers.

Cover: Modern Carpets & Textiles for Interiors (summer 2010: 15)