Louise Bourgeois: Stitches in Time

Louise Bourgeois “Stitches in Time”
The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland
March 6th – May 9th 2004

Born in France but resident in New York City since 1938, Louise Bourgeois’s prolific career spans more than seven decades. While she has never dedicated herself to a single material or process the textile, first as metaphor and more recently as material, has been the focus of sustained attention throughout her career. This can be attributed in part to her family who worked in the Aubusson tapestry industry and engaged Bourgeois at an early age to assist with the repair and restoration of textiles. But equally influential are painful family memories of her father taking a mistress - a woman hired to be her governess - and her mother’s inability to confront this betrayal. Bourgeois’s sculptures often dwell on themes relating to betrayal and jealousy as well as the catharsis of making and mending represented by the textile.

“Stitches in Time” presents an early group of prints entitled “He Disappeared Into Complete Silence” from 1947 alongside three untitled columns of fabric squares of gently decreasing proportions. Despite the years that separate them (the columns are from 2001-2002) both address notions of isolation and failed communication. Today it is difficult to look upon the totems without making a connection to the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. The architecture of New York City’s skyline is certainly present, as is the isolation and loneliness of city life. But there is also a palpable sense of dependency evident in the towering columns, as though each segment represents an individual simultaneously weighed down and buoyed up by those around them. “Seven in a Bed” captures a similar tension, albeit of a more personal nature, that epitomizes Bourgeois’s ability to conjure a sense of simultaneous innocence and disquiet. In this case the series of small sewn figures lying together on a mattress are a reminder of the childhood slumber. At the same time the Janus-like heads and shared limbs of some of the figures also speak to more adult concerns of emotional entanglement and sexual betrayal.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the exhibition is a haunting series of faces made from pieced fabric remnants. Rather than the inanimate features of a doll, the faces looked sculpted - each eye socket scooped out by a finger working in clay. The stitches and seams that hold the faces together feel like the scars of emotional pain and partial recovery rather than physical accident. Bandaged in gauze, “Rejection” clearly evokes a sense of injury under repair, pain coddled in soft and healing layers of fabric. Another untitled piece places a heavy floral motif in a symmetrical pattern down the face of the sculpture. Reminiscent of the Maori facial tattoos the sculpture reminds us that cloth may be worn as adornment, but paint and ink are also used to adorn fabric and skin. Each of the fabric heads and many other works in the exhibition are displayed in large glass vitrines. The protection and solemnity of the cases increases the sense that these objects are scared. For the series of faces in particular, the glass creates a muted message. Like a person calling across a great distance, the lips seem to move visibly while the wind takes away the sound of the voice.

In 1969, Bourgeois reviewed an exhibition of contemporary textiles at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for the magazine Craft Horizons. In it she voiced dismay at what she saw and suggested: “I could think, for instance, of all kinds of turned shapes, cubes or any three-dimensional forms that could have been used. The pieces in the show rarely liberate themselves from decoration and only begin to explore the possibilities of textiles. They can be woven into any shape and then made rigid by spraying. They can be stretched over armatures, draped and pulled. All this is still open to exploration.” Thirty-five years later, exhibitions such as “Stitches in Time” reveal that Bourgeois, at least, has handsomely answered her own challenge to textile artists.

Surface Design Journal (spring 2005: 48-49).