The Fibre and Slate Sculpture of Francoise Giannesini
Based in Paris, Francoise Giannesini’s approach to her art is both serious and considered. Her tapestries have garnered numerous accolades as well as private and public commissions. Over the past decade, her works in slate have commanded a similar notoriety for themselves. When discussing Giannesini’s work, there is a palpable commitment to the exacting investigation of form and material that she has chosen as her career. This rigour seems to permeate her works, as though the discipline and focus of the artist’s life have determined a large part of the sculptures’ own form.
There are many scholars, the late Peter Dormer being one of them, who see the crafts of textiles, pottery, woodworking and the like as the result of haptic knowledge. There is a belief held by many that because this knowledge exists at a haptic level, written theoretical investigations struggle to do justice to the discipline. The argument resides in an understanding of where knowledge is located. The theorist, it is argued, writes with the intellect and as a result is divorced from the haptic knowledge wielded by the craftsperson. The debate could be seen to present yet another example of the failure of language to convey consistent and precise meaning. But as with all worthwhile debates, there’s a strong argument for both sides. As a writer I would, of course, want to believe in the purpose of a theoretical body of writing about the crafts. As a craftsperson, Giannesini exemplifies another extreme.
Giannesini is not a great believe in the notion that the studio arts are a discipline that can be taught, let alone theorised. As a consequence, she elected to bypass classes in the rudiments of weaving, preferring instead to develop her own techniques without the intervention of a “correct” of sequential approach established by a teacher or mentor. Often such idealised arguments are spoken by first-year studio students who, seeking to escape the tedium of required Art History courses, complain that the development of their own distinct language is being cramped by the introduction of established rights and wrongs. It is an argument for argument’s sake. But more often than not, it fails through lack of discipline or understanding of how to undertake a solitary investigation of the visual. Giannesini is, again, the exception to these observations. Far from resulting in an aesthetic that lacks foundation or technique, the outcome of her self-taught tapestry style opened the loom to new ways of approaching the woven structure.
Before children learn to write they approach a blank sheet of paper from all angles with all manner of line weight and scale. Only those with a natural artistic temperament continue to command this ability after learning by rote to write cursive script. Absent from this artist’s vocabulary is the prioritising of front over back or top over bottom. The flat plane of warp and weft used to make flat functional fabric, like the laws of lined writing paper used to encourage uniformity in writing, are absent from the development of Giannesini’s visual language. Instead of selvedge or edge, the warp serves as scaffolding for her three-dimensional forms. The dimensional nature of the work requires her to approach each sculpture from both sides of the upright tapestry loom. This process creates forms rather than surfaces which appear substantial despite the pliable materials involved.
The tufts of wool are secured to the warp in a manner similar to a carpet weave and later shaped and cut with scissors to create forms reminiscent of topographic maps with the addition of a third dimension. These works are generally abstract in form and monochrome in colour. Only occasionally, and after careful inspection, is the subtle path of an additional hue revealed. Otherwise the fibres are always of one pure colour, ordered pre-dyed and in bulk to ensure continuity. Apparent variations to monochromatic colours captured on film are actually the result of fluctuations in light and shadow across the sculpted surfaces.
Nonetheless, even in the presence of the tapestry it is often difficult for the eye to trust this information. This illusive ability to modulate colour is one of the results of the artist’s carefully developed sense of form. Shape has the power to alter the relationships between colour and texture, forcing the surface away from its static reality and into a dynamic dialogue with the limited elements at hand: colour, texture and form.
In many works there is a desire to relate the form to the human body. This tendency plagues abstract sculpture and painting, and has been determined as a natural and inescapable human instinct. But in the case of Giannesini’s work, this tendency appears to be fuelled by more than a simple desire to see oneself represented in some small aspect of the abstract. The ridges and crevices that form what could be called the edges of her abstracted forms are of a scale and rhythm that relates to the human figure. They aren’t overly precious or complicated, nor do they tower or overwhelm. Instead there seems to grow an intuitive response akin to the dictates of modern dance between the sculpture and the positive and negative space of one’s own body. Ironically, these observations are born of an intuitive sense, rather than any intellectual or theoretical analysis of form and scale.
In recent years, Giannesini has tapered some of her loom time to allow for work in another medium: slate. It is difficult to imagine a material more foreign to a weaver’s hands or studio than the striated forms of this solid rock. But when Giannesini found scraps of slate in a colleague’s studio a decade ago, the material piqued her interest. In her Paris atelier she has now sectioned off a corner of her weaving room with sheets of heavy plastic in an attempt to control the dust and shards that result from working with slate. Boxes brim with scraps of various sizes and the trappings of this new trade: protective gloves, goggles and ventilator, along with a variety of machines strong and precise enough to cut and trim the slate to size. The material seems at odds with the loom and its environment. It looks unforgiving and fussy to a weaver’s eye, both flaky and harsh at the same time.
From Giannesini’s perspective the slate offers yet another eloquent dialogue with the world of form and shape. Far from developing a new language, the slate sculptures bear a striking resemblance to their fibre counterparts. After adjusting to this contrast of media, one can see an amazing similarity in the visual rhythms that make up both sculptures. The structural resemblance reminds one that Gianessini’s long and dedicated career as a tapestry artist has been a crucial factor in determining her approach to the use of slate. Rather than a change of direction mid-career, the slate sculptures are more like the continuation of the same story, but using a different type face. The artist’s language has not changed. The words, syntax, the idioms have not changed, just the shape of the vehicle which expresses them.
Working in slate has allowed Giannessini to accept larger-scale public commissions. The medium enjoys the rain and damp of the outside world in was that the wool of her tapestries would find intolerable. But with this increase in scale and audience comes an inevitable association with the “monument” – the stone monoliths that form the historical legacy of Western sculpture. Gianessini’s early wool tapestries were not determined by the long textile tradition that lay before it, although the work of Magdalena Abakanowicz, which moved away from the typical handling and scale of textile materials, certainly presents connections. But to understand Giannesini’s slate works, their lineage must be traced, not to the stone sculptures celebrated by art history, but to the fibre forms this artist first developed in isolation. From here, there seems to be far stronger and more valid association with form and rhythm than the monoliths of sculpture’s history can offer. Knowing Giannesini’s opposition to the teacher as a short cut for personally directed investigation, these links make sense.
Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learnt from this artist is to see the futility in many of the descriptive divisions that plague the visual arts today. The fine art versus craft debate seems to have burnt itself out for the moment with no real conclusion, other than the monetary labels that are added to either category. Its replacement, the debate surrounding the ability or futility of attempting to theorise the crafts, has a little more fuel behind it. But the works illustrated here already offer an answer, the haptic and the intellectual are surely not exclusive to each other. In this instance, the artist has established and directed her own haptic investigation of the world around her. But the results were not at the expense of intellectual rigour nor are they inaccessible to intellectual critique. Giannesini’s intense and serious investigation of the visual communicates to the world through a language of the artist’s own making. It is a language that we can all aspire to: intuitive and precise.
Craft Arts International (No. 57, 2003: 98-100)