Cristin Searles: On the Sculpture Trail

Despite holding BA and MFA degrees in Sculpture, American artist Cristin Searles admits that it took some time before she realized that her chosen medium as a sculptor could be fabric. After completing her studies Searles lived in New York City and worked in costume design and construction. Fabric became how she earned a living, not how she made her art. She explains, “working with fabric meant ‘craft’ and ‘function’, not fine art. It took some time for me to realize that fabric was also the ideal material for my sculptural work. I was indoctrinated into the more formal sculptural notion that excluded fabric from the ‘serious’ materials at a sculptor’s disposal.”

Today Searles sculptures are fashioned from starched silk organza. Her choice of material minimizes the need for intrusive scaffolds or armatures to shape three-dimensional form. Like some of Michael Brennand-Wood’s work there is evidence of a printed floral repeat whose layers of colour have been peeled apart, opened up and given air and space to move that is not available to the surface of printed fabric. But unlike the individual components of Brennand-Wood’s recent work, such as stitched flowers that are in their own right already complex pieces of stitch and colour, Searles work reveals a greater sense of abstraction and deconstruction. Many pieces are comprised of several layers of fabric secured only by single stitches. These points read like sutures sewn with the delicate concentration one would expect of a surgeon joining skin. The unexpected addition of a tiny gleaming bead offers a finishing flourish to a gesture whose beauty would otherwise have been its function.

In the clusters that recur throughout Searles sculptures there is evidence of a cancer at work. But rather than evoke horror, it is system of molecular growth full of beauty. The mutating repetitions of shape are evidence of an attention to individual detail that manages to intrigue rather than alarm. Each piece ultimately stops short of blatant physicality, even in works such as “Romance” that could be accused of looking like the aureoles of breasts protruding from the gallery wall. Their placement at waist rather than chest height turns references away from the obviously physical despite the soft pink colour and cup like shapes evoking a corporeal surface. And where the addition of hair or bodily secretions would push the work towards the role of fabric as skin and collector of stains, Searles decorates the centre of each with a tiny circle of glass beads. The glinting halo is undeniably decorative – simple and understated in a beauty that turns viewers’ attention away from the physical and towards something less easily traced to the known.

Searles textiles seem to belong to a liminal world between air and water, where light determines physicality. The ephemeral nature of the sheer organza relies heavily on the type of available light the work is viewed in. Low ambient light causes shapes to slip out of focus, while a sharp spotlight casts intricate shadows that make it difficult to discern the individual layers of cloth. In both cases the palette feels as though a current of water is moving across the surface; muting electric colours through its filter, blurring ever so slightly the edges of once hard forms, and making it impossible to discern if a particular colour is the result of one piece of cloth or the eye blending several layers of distinct hues.

Each grouping is displayed either pinned to the wall or stitched by hand in layers on an organza backing. Unfinished works in the studio reveal traces of the domestic, snatches of references to the garments’ structure such as a cuff or collar without sleeve or neck. But it is difficult to keep these clues to origin in mind when the works are assembled and seen as a whole. Once assembled, they refuse to confess any trace of the mundane and instead become a total greater than any of the traceable parts. In this way they seem, through very contemporary concerns about the conceptual role of art, to support Rozsika Parker’s often quoted Foreword to The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the making of the feminine. Parker suggests that, “The art of embroidery has been the means of educating women into the feminine ideal, and of proving that they have attained it, but it has also provided a weapon of resistance to the constraints of femininity.” Searles work teeters on this edge with the inevitable domestic and female associations of the textile joined with its unarming ability to transcend the prescribed associations cloth carries.

Searles attributes much of the sense of air and light that fills her work to the spacious studio she now works from in Providence, Rhode Island. Here she keeps several pieces in varying stages of completion on the go at any one time. Glancing at a work she began before the birth of her second child late last year, she notes with some trepidation the time it will take to realize the intricate layers of material she has decided upon. But she seems thoroughly committed to the process, explaining, “the labour-intensive nature of the work allows plenty of time for me to make decisions and find solutions in a zen-like way that refuses to be rushed.” With a husband and two small children she admits that time at her studio is increasingly difficult to squeeze into the day but has decided that it is important her studio remain a space dedicated solely to her work. She explains that her time there is a refuge, a place to sink completely into the contemplative nature of stitching and recharge rather than deplete her energy. This state of mind is evident in each of her pieces. They seem to speak in the hushed tones and ample light of their conception, quietly confident that we will put down what we are doing to listen to their beauty.

Embroidery magazine (May/June 2005: 38-39)