Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Scrapheap Challenge: Carol Shinn’s Embroidery


Scrapheap Challenge: Carol Shinn’s Photo-Realist Embroidery

Carol Shinn’s embroideries are a study in the complex and minute details it is possible to render in thread. Shinn explains that her attraction to images of rusted cars and abandoned buildings depicted in her embroideries is based on the ‘visual complexity’ they present rather than any intentional narrative development. Frequently, she collages two partial images together in a desire to convey broader visual statements than a single scene can depict. As she explains, ‘I have thought of myself primarily as a recorder of what I see, and by the act of recording I hope to get viewers to see things that they might otherwise ignore. I hope to draw attention to how differently we can see things – on the one hand the close observation of the physicality of the things and on the other, the short-hand mode of seeing, just noticing things well enough to navigate the world while thinking about other things’.

The contrasts found in these embroideries thrive on inherent juxtapositions: speed versus stasis, matt versus shine, the organic versus the mechanical. Often, a tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar is apparent in the combination of image and content. Colour and form repeat, such as the insignia on the bonnet of a car etched in an architectural alcove. The dialogue that ensues between these elements, the solid and the superficial, the hollow and the substantial, the nostalgic and the uncanny, is first and foremost a visual one. Nonetheless it is tempting, as a viewer, to look for narratives based on sequential cause and effect details embedded in these works. To succumb to this temptation with these particular works is a frustrating endeavour. The artist explains that the works are first determined by visual rather than narrative associations.

Recently, Shinn has responded to many viewers reading an unintended sense of nostalgia in her works. Turning to what she coins the ultimate ‘looking back’, the Greek Myth series depicts a deeply personal interpretation of several ancient myths. Drawing inspiration from the tendency humans have to anthropomorphise objects in their environment, Shinn associated the colours and shapes of abandoned cars with some of history’s most celebrated narratives. Shinn explains, ‘By using Greek myths I refer not only to the specific stories, but also to our ability to use inanimate objects to tell a story’.

Ultimately the collection poses some interesting questions about how and what we, as observers, are conditioned to see in visual art. Exposing the dominant role of story telling allows one to acknowledge and reassess the narrative alongside the equally effective forms of communication that often go unrecognised or misunderstood. In Shinn’s case, the desire of viewers to read unintentional emblems of nostalgia and narrative in her early works led to the intentional references incorporated in the titles of the ‘Greek Myth’ series. But ironically this further layering of information has created its own isolation as not all of us are familiar enough with the myths of our past to recognise the narrative associations Shinn has drawn.

Shinn’s attention to the process of rust and decay inevitably draws the emphasis to exterior surfaces rather than interior forms of structures. In these works, this focus on surface generates an atmosphere similar to that of a stage set, a place where one can conceive of every plane as a surface, with an infrastructure of poles and bricks propping up the entire environment. This, the incredible dimension Shinn is able to capture through her attention to detail is ultimately disorienting. These are not cars you could enter or building facades you could penetrate, but a complex collection of surfaces that thrive on the inherent juxtapositions of their associated materials. The results are a fascinating combination of the commonplace and the foreign. Admittedly, rusted cars and abandoned buildings have no inherent lack of familiarity, but through this artist’s eyes the complexity of detail sheds a new and uncanny light on the familiar, allowing us to step back from the recognisable forms and appreciate the details of age and decay that are brought to the forefront. The result, it feels, is an otherworldly simulacrum of the original.

In order to stitch the many layers necessary to arrive at these complex images, Shinn sets her sewing machine with the feed dogs lowered so that she is in complete control of the position of the fabric and the density of the stitches. The rich surfaces that build from the layering of numerous coloured threads cover the entire canvas base. Shinn notes this dense, all-over effect is similar to cross-hatched lines across the surface of a drawing paper. In fact, it is her love of drawing, evident in her command of proportion and detail, which first led Shinn to embroidery. The hand of an artist competent in her command of line, form and composition is certainly evident in her second chosen medium of thread and stitch.

It is the convincing level at which form and composition are rendered which makes it so surprising, at a distance, to learn that these images are embroidered. Completed works typically lose the perfectly square or rectangular shape of the original canvas. Shinn makes no attempt to control this distortion as she sees it as a natural emphasis of the stitching process. Perhaps it is this approach, based solidly on both technical skill and a respect for the properties of the materials she has chosen to work with, that make these embroideries so visually arresting.

Embroidery magazine (Jan. 2003: 12-14)