Maxine Bristow: Everyday Inspirations

Maxine Bristow

“And how long did that take to make?” It is the sort of question that has been banished from the vocabulary of anyone worth-their-weight in textile-know-how. We know that time, after all, is not what matters. Asking after the production time of anything made by hand seems to smack a little of ignorance. A bit like the old adage that if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it anyway. If you need to know how long it took to make, then you don’t get it. But when did the length of time it takes to create something become such an unseemly question?

Maxine Bristow is quite clear that her work takes ages to produce. She stitches in what sounds like each and every free moment available to her, adhering to strict guidelines she calculates for herself in order to complete work within prescribed deadlines. If one buttonhole takes so many minutes to produce, then so many buttonholes must be turned in one day, one week, one month to create the number required. “Creativity is often seen as being intuitive and expressive, it is adventurous and exciting,” she observes. “The way I work is very laborious. It is very boring.” ‘Boring’ it may be, but Bristow creates art that is deceptively engaging. For over a decade now, her practice has been steadfast in its exploration of repetition through a signature palette of muted greys and browns. “It is very much to do with subtlety and nuance,” she explains. “The balance between things that are very ordered and systematic is the soft sensuality of the fabric.”

“There are two contexts to the work: the genre of minimalism - and just plain sewing,” she explains. Ironically the two rarely meet. Minimalism: the cold, hard explorations of Fine Art, often wrought by men with the white cube of the art gallery in mind. Sewing: the simple technique that keeps clothes on our backs. Historically, the work of women whose labour too often went unnoticed. Bristow is very conscious of the marriage she has brokered between the two. Now a Reader in Fine Art at the University of Chester, her education includes BA and MA studies in Textiles – specifically embroidery – from Manchester Metropolitan University and several years working as a textile designer of furnishing fabrics. Her appointment in 1989 to the Fine Art Department of what was then Chester College caused her to re-examine the relationship between textiles and fine art and develop a practice that takes equal account of both.

While labor is certainly not the point to her work, it is part of it. “The surfaces of the bags are literally activated by touch as the gesso encrusted cloth is made pliable by working over the surface inch by inch,” she explains. “This repetitive bodily performance is re-enacted through the hand turning of buttonholes, row upon row of quilting and the gentle rhythms of running stitch.” This energy and effort sits in stark contrast to the peacefulness of the finished work. There is little evidence of struggle. No trace of fatigue or frustration runs across the surface. Instead, “the work is about contradictions, a need to constantly defer meaning by setting things in opposition.” Scale is also further crucial but contradictory aspect to this work, which takes on the associations of women’s ‘mindless’ toil through the sheer quantity of stitches required, but refuses to be precious, meek – or tired. In fact there is something unusually substantial about these textiles. They order rather than decorate space.

Even when it gets invited, textile art often occupies the gallery space uneasily. Rather than the gallery being an afterthought, the manner in which Bristow’s work functions within the gallery setting informs decisions about production from a very early stage. She explains that a small work by the American artist Eva Hesse entitled Untitled [Clothespin Piece] 1968 inspired her quest for “a suitably neutral form that would provide a significant surface area, and whilst having an affective material presence, would not itself detract from the surface interest. What I wanted was something with a object-like quality that would reference textile’s own history and significance within material culture.” The bag provided this form handsomely and has, until very recently, acted as the mainstay for numerous investigations. A far cry from the ephemeral and gossamer, the bag provided a weighty form that proudly takes its place on the gallery wall in what Bristow has referred to as “audaciously occupying the same space of painting.” Each bag is unquestionably three-dimensional with an interior and back that cannot fully be viewed but are undoubtedly present. The bag’s ability to hold and contain also opens up references to domestic objects defined by functions that these vessels suggest, rather than participate, in providing.

Bristow cites Agnes Martin as an influential reference, another artist whose choice of palette and compositions may have been minimal, but materials and mark exceedingly rich. Much like Bristow’s work, which gains depth on viewing, Martin’s subtle graphite grids display a wealth of texture, difference and adjustments to the repetitive gesture over the course of the canvas. The hand drawn (or sewn) line results in ‘imperfections’ that reveal both the time and concentration invested in each work. Intriguingly, Bristow’s more recent work, such as the barrier and light switch series, run the risk of being overlooked by a careless viewer. But that is precisely the point for, as Bristow puts it, each “could quite easily be taken for ‘real’ gallery furniture. There is the possibility of the work being able to infiltrate spaces of privilege and power.”

And what about time? Are we somewhere, deep down, nervous that the toil cannot be justified? A lot of time spent making art is to be understood, even admired. But that much time can make us a little uneasy. Perhaps it is the knowledge that we might be shown up, shamed by our own lack of discipline or attention? Bristow translates some of the most unassuming details of everyday life into curious objects of endurance; objects that refuse to betray the stresses of their making.

Embroidery magazine (March/April, 2007: 14-16)