Could You Repeat That? Simone Pheulpin

Simone Pheulpin

A gesture, performed once, can quite easily remain devoid of meaning. But however mundane or slight the gesture may be, when performed repeatedly it earns significance. The same could be said of our response to a given material. A commonplace material when viewed in isolation is unlikely to be remarkable. When multiplied, its attributes – however familiar they may be – can take on new importance. Thus repetition, particularly when generated by the hand rather than machine, can bestow new importance to both processes and materials. The power of repetition appears not in the perfection that results, but in precisely the opposite, in the imperfection that inevitably appears alongside it. Subtle disruptions within an otherwise repetitive and unremarkable material and process are vital to the sculptures of French artist Simone Pheulpin.

Pheulpin constructs sculptures that thrive on minute changes to her methodical process. “The fold is the motion”, she explains of her work and the physical demands its construction requires. “The fold is the shape of memory itself. It narrates what is happening. It tells what took place here and there. Whether the folds are tight or loose, regular or irregular, the technique implies compressing, tightening, and bending the material upon itself.”

The fold may seem an unremarkable act to use as the central exploration of several decades of work, but Pheulpin’s practice seems to thrive on its self-imposed limitations. White linen and silver straight pins are her only materials, the pleat her single technique. As Pheulpin explains, “depending upon the style of the fold, the results look different: scenes of rocky landscapes with faults running through; clusters and dapples of light; the simulacra of foam or of froth; impressions of fossils.” Pheulpin’s sculptures may suggest a variety of references, but her technique and chosen materials are singular. Devoid of surface pattern and colour, these subtle explorations are reminiscent of the clean graphite grids of an Agnes Martin painting. Minimal, rather than minimalist, they reveal first and foremost the insistent repetition of the maker’s hand that is crucial to their construction. Quiet, pared down materials allow the eye to focus on texture and shadow, elements often concealed under the clamour for attention that the colour and pattern of textiles can brashly demand.

Contemporary art textile practice often entertains itself with an agenda that pointedly questions the function of existing textile structures or materials. The embroidered sampler reworked with the content of telephone text messages, for example, or printed toile de Jouy fabric reproduced on a digital printer with the insertion of less tasteful elements of our contemporary landscape. Pheulpin does not engage with this agenda. Instead her construction method is self-taught and surprisingly simple: metres of white linen that are cut into strips, folded into pleats and set in place with straight pins. The width of the fabric strips and the size of the pleats determine the shapes that result. Pheulpin creates work that seems content to stand alone, quite unselfconscious in its identity within a broader framework of textile art.

Quiet and unassuming, Pheulpin’s work is full of elements that quietly surprise. An invisible armature of pins beneath the surface of each sculpture secures each layer of pleating, but also adds an unexpected weight to each sculpture. Handed one small study in her Paris studio, I was not prepared for such a solid, weighty object to meet my hands. Folds, pleats and pins – all the most temporary of textile structures are here used to create objects that are surprisingly permanent. Much like the barbs of wool that tangle to create felt, the system of pins concealed beneath the surface of the cloth interlock to make the fabric very difficult to disentangle or unwind. This system of barbs also means that this work takes on a linear progression much like weaving or knitting. Materials build, each layer supported by the previous with little opportunity for alterations without deconstruction in strict reverse chronological order of the previous layers. This challenge is one that Pheulpin respects, maintaining that the possibility of going back, returning and reworking, is not in fact a luxury that she allows herself to indulge in.

Along with weight, the sheer density of these sculptures mean that a considerable amount of linen and pins are required for even the smallest sculpture. Pheulpin humorously tells of the sponsorship she was close to securing with a pin manufacturer several years ago. Considering the quantity she uses in each piece she makes, the sponsorship would have provided a considerable contribution to the materials her sculptures consume. The stumbling block appeared when the company learnt that while pins are crucial to her work, none are in fact visible in a finished piece. “After that, they were not so keen”, she chuckles.

While Pheulpin works with a remarkably limited palette of materials and structures, the forms her work adopts often takes even the artist by surprise. The materials do not conform to a preconceived or plotted shape she would like to create, but tend to grow intuitively once construction is underway. Two rules govern scale: 1) the sculpture is not so tall that Pheulpin cannot reach the very top or 2) so small that the interior limits her ability to reach inside and lay the crucial pins that secure each pleat. Allowing the shape of each sculpture to remain unplanned may seem like a daunting way to begin a work. In fact, it is determining where each sculpture should end that poses an even greater challenge. At some point in her repetition of folding of pleating, the system of stacked cloth must allow for a space to tuck away the telltale strip of fabric and cleanly finish off the object. This is a moment Pheulpin leaves to chance, explaining that she trusts that the right moment will eventually appear and tries not to predict when that might be.

White linen and straight pins do not seem like materials that could evoke a multitude of responses, but viewing these sculptures brings numerous references to mind. Canyons with their layers of visible sediment that built up over millennia or the parched cracked land of the desert or mudflats are in evidence. The spiralling shapes of shells and our own fingerprints also seem appropriate associations; patterns that are repeated endlessly, but also reveal the impossible variety and difference that nature creates. The smooth stones of an ordered Zen garden also comes to mind. Each association confirms the comfort we seem to derive from contemplation of mundane, ordered elements that strive for perfection and the beauty to be found in the failure of their ambition.

Pheulpin works without colour but her sculptures eagerly play with light, shading crevices and edges with degrees of grey and even black. As landscapes coloured by the grey scale they also evoke the most distant surfaces we can contemplate from earth, the lunar surfaces we can only glimpse from afar. Oscillating between the distant and the familiar, the giant and the miniature, these sculptures are most like fossils, pressed into the earth and determined by compression. Fossils are strengthened and made permanent by the pressure they rest under. Similarly, Pheulpin’s linen becomes dense and substantial. Compressed, like the fossil, the textile earns a new found longevity.

Selvedge magazine (2007: 68-69)