Tilleke Schwarz: Bombarded with Data

Bombarded with Data

The embroidery of Tillke Schwarz seems to embody all that the traditional sampler would have resisted. Her spontaneous creations draw upon a combination of words and symbols that creep with a graffiti-like mark across their linen backings. While the use of text is not unfamiliar to embroidery, the fragments and interruptions she stitches create a palpable sense of chaos. Schwarz has steadily developed this purposeful language to communicate the overload of information that defines our contemporary society.

Schwarz was born in The Netherlands in 1946. Learning to sew from her mother at an early age, she went on to attend the Academy of Art and Industry in Enschede, The Netherlands, and the Free Academy of Modern Art in The Hague, studying both fine art and textile design. It was not until her twenties that an elaborate kit complete with a copy of Frisian sampler drew her to embroidery. By 1983, Schwarz had moved from the traditional style of works such as Squares (1980) and begun to develop her own stream-of-consciousness style. In the years that have followed, a continued commitment to drawing and painting on paper has become ever more evident in the mark making of her evolving language. Stitched methodical patterns have been replaced by a far more spontaneous composition.

In the ensuing work an increasing sense of chaos and bombardment, generated by the constant need to delete junk emails and mute endless television commercials, has become apparent. Much of Schwarz’s more recent work creates a dialogue about contemporary society and its perceived values. Image, stitch, color, and text relate on multiple levels to create a complex fusion of narratives and fragments. The inclusion of text is described by the artist as similar to that of a diary and is a theme that continues to be expanded upon today. The text is punctured with phrases that allow the narrative to lead somewhere – only to be interrupted by phrases such as “paper jam error.” Set among such frustrating statements are enigmatic figures from traditional cross-stitch and more ambiguous figures laid out in the looser hand of free stitch. The final element that has come to typify Schwarz’s mature style is her own brave use of empty space. Her composition is, by her own admission, allowed to evolve rather than being planned prior to sewing. The result combines areas of heavily layered symbols and text set in direct contrast to areas left untouched, allowing viewers time to absorb at their own pace the cacophony of information before them.

In return for the effort that each of Schwarz’s pieces demands of the viewer, an assortment of narratives surrender themselves. The artist gives some insight into the levels in which On Color operates when she explains that the French text on ne mange pas des tulips was spoken by a famous French chef, Paul Bocuse, when asked what kind of Dutch ingredients he uses in his cuisine. The flippant response by Bocuse that he “does not eat tulips” refers to the winter of 1944 during the Second World War, when food shortages, especially in the big cities, did in fact force tulip bulbs to become a common dish in Holland. The connections are certainly present, but the viewer must actively engage with the marks, words, and symbols that form Scwharz’s language to see the multiplicity of references.

Loosing Our Memory (1999) warns of the communication crisis that the Information Age has created. Made in the shadow of the feared Y2K crisis and Europe’s controversial adoption of the euro as a single currency, the piece warns of the dangers associated with a blind reliance on technology. While technology has brought time-saving efficiency to many aspects of our lives, Schwarz considers the future. What images will be accessible 100 years from now? With the pace of improvements running faster than most of us can keep up with, who will have maintained the out-dated systems needed when, in the future, we want to open all those digital pictures of the family picnic? For the visual artist and historian, the observation is both pertinent and alarming.

While the world becomes smaller and more accessible each day, articulate, imaginative communication is becoming increasingly rare. Welcome to the Real World (2001) is a record of international, national, and local news around the time of its creation. Schwarz explains that while she was working on the piece, the current U.S. presidential election was facing the unheard of prospect of conflicting results, and the NASDAQ plummeted. Like the intertwined narratives Schwarz sews, it is difficult to know what came first. Closer to home, Schwarz added a depiction of the first machine-stitched stamp used in Switzerland. The result is a collaged record of the public and private international and local news of the time coupled with whimsical creatures and forms that operate on a more personal level.

This is deceptively complex textile art. Appropriating a tradition long associated with the domestic, Tilleke Schwarz has found a contemporary voice of enormous aesthetic and intellectual freedom for the medium.

FiberArts magazine (summer 2002: 52-55)