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Dorothy Caldwell: In Good Repair

Date Jul 16, 2003 - Mar 17, 2005
Artist Dorothy Caldwell
Curated by Sarah Quinton

Exhibition Overview

In her 2003 solo exhibition In Good Repair, Dorothy Caldwell extends her characteristic rural landscape imagery of the last 10 years into studies of representation and abstraction. She ruminates on natural phenomena such as prehistoric rock formations, ancient shorelines and preserved flora, or on the middle-distant view of the immediate lake and hillsides of eastern Ontario's Kawartha Lakes region.

The earthbound-everyday are embedded in her art, but the centre of Caldwell's studio practice is poetic invention: she draws out innate qualities from her subject matter and her materials. Rather than depicting or fixing an image, Caldwell creates a new space of contemplation.

Additional Information

Dorothy Caldwell: In Good Repair is based on the artist's experience at the Textile Museum of Canada where she studied artifacts from the Museum's historic collection. Caldwell's textiles draw their vocabulary from domestic cloth, such as samplers and quilts, as well as from the history of household practices such as darning, mending and sewing.

Selected by the artist, and installed throughout the exhibition, are several fragile and mended textiles from the archives of the Textile Museum of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Peterborough Centennial Museum and from the artist's own collection. These old and carefully repaired pieces of cloth harmonize with Caldwell's language of mark-making. She works in deference to domestically prescribed utilitarian skills, yet she pulls them away from their private arena and symbolically places them into the exterior world of the land.

In Good Repair extends Caldwell's characteristic rural landscape imagery of the last 10 years into a study of representation and abstractions. She ruminates on natural phenomena such as prehistoric rock formations, ancient shorelines and preserved flora, or the middle-distant view of the immediate lake and hillsides in the vicinity of eastern Ontario's Kawartha Lakes region.

Some of the preparatory work for this exhibition was done in Newfoundland. The earthbound-everyday are embedded in her art, but the centre of Caldwell's studio practice is poetic invention: she draws out innate qualities from her subject matter and her materials. Rather than depicting or fixing an image, Caldwell creates a new space of contemplation.

Dorothy Caldwell, <i>A Lake/A Bowl</i> (2002), Photo: Thomas Moore
<i>Clavus</i>, Egypt, 7th century
<i>Book</i>, USA, late 19th century
<i>Dance skirt</i>, Democratic Republic of the Congo, late 20th century
Dorothy Calewell, <i>An Island/A Pond</i> (2002), Photo: Thomas Moore
Installation, Photo: Thomas Moore
Dorothy Caldwell, detail of <i>A Lake/A Bowl</i> (2001/03), Photo: Thomas Moore
Dorothy Caldwell, <i>Preserve</i> (2002), Photo: Thomas Moore
Installation, Photo: Thomas Moore
Dorothy Caldwell, detail of <i>Day by Day</i> (2003), Photo: Thomas Moore
Dorothy Caldwell, <i>Unintended Marks</i>  (2003), Photo: Thomas Moore
Dorothy Caldwell, <i>Artist Sketchbook<i> (2003), Photo: Thomas Moore
View Collection Artifacts from this Exhibition

Dorothy Caldwell, 2003

Dorothy Caldwell lives and works in Hastings, Ontario, and has held an active studio practice for over 25 years. She has executed major architectural commissions, and her work is represented in private and public collections in Canada, the United States and Asia, including the Canadian Museum of Civilization (Gatineau), the Canada Council Art Bank (Ottawa), the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology (Vancouver), the Canadian Consulate in Bangkok (Thailand), the Carlton and Reta Lewis Collection (Washington, D.C.), the Daphne Farago Collection (Rhode Island) and the American Craft Museum (New York). She travels, lectures and teaches worldwide.

Dorothy Caldwell represented Canada at Expo 90 in Osaka, Japan and was the 1990 recipient of the prestigious Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in the Crafts. She studied at the Banff Centre and at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and in Rome. Her work has been supported by numerous grants from the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council.

Dorothy Caldwell: In Good Repair

By Sarah Quinton, 2003

Dorothy Caldwell: In Good Repair is built on the artist's experiences at the Textile Museum of Canada where she studied artifacts from the Museum's historic collection. Caldwell's textiles draw their vocabulary from domestic cloth, such as samplers and quilts, as well as from the history of household practices such as darning, mending and sewing. This exhibition explores how the act of mending or repairing cloth creates new meaning and renewal, marking time and building history.

With this body of work, Caldwell extends her characteristic rural landscape imagery of the last 10 years into a study of representation and abstractions. Hand stitching, wax-resist and discharge (a subtractive chemical process whereby colour is removed from the fabric) are direct and insistent tools for her distinctive mark-making. She ruminates on natural phenomena such as prehistoric rock formations, ancient shorelines and preserved flora, or the middle-distant view of the immediate lake and hillsides in the vicinity of eastern Ontario's Kawartha Lakes region.

Some of the preparatory work for this exhibition was done in Newfoundland, as seen in the three smaller works from 1998, titled Cove, Stones and Island. Caldwell participates in the human compulsion to mark the land itself, as in the centuries-old petroglyphs near where she lives, and the rows of trees that delineate property lines. The recurring elliptical forms are examples of Caldwell's allusive formal vocabulary: the ellipses suggest both land formations and geometrically precise and spatially complex abstract elements; they also mimic the uneven, circular patched areas in a threadbare utility blanket. But the centre of Caldwell's studio practice is poetic invention: she draws out innate qualities from her subject matter and her materials rather than depicting or fixing an image.

Hill, island, lake, pond and bowl are elliptical shapes that serve as the motifs of Caldwell's large-scale works titled: An Island/A Pond(2002), A Lake/A Bowl (2001-2003) and A Hill/A Lake 2003). The image of the bowl brings together the land with object making: at this scale, the bowl shape can also be seen as a crater, which will one day contain water and become a lake. The universe is in these pieces; we are enveloped by the physicality of the cloth, their surfaces scarred by repeated abrasion, punctured by oversized embroidery thread and marked by accidental hot wax drips. "I don't care if the fabric rips, or if the tools go right through the cloth, or if they just make their mark," says Caldwell. "I like the surprises that happen during the process."

All three of these large pieces offer tilted perspectives, shifting from one vantage point to the next without a single point of visual stability. The body of water in A Hill/A Lake, for example, is a concave ovoid container at one moment; at the next, it is inverted and a black monolith - a softly arched impenetrable triangle that plays on black and white, positive-negative compositional elements. In A Lake/A Bowl, an elliptical dish form hovers over the black and white textured surface in a simple stitched outline - a constellation of running stitches. The red-stitched bowl looks down from above. The lake is found in a rectangular blue puddle - an unprepossessing swatch of watery cloth at the low foreground. In the smaller version of A Hill/A Lake 2002), large, saturated areas of colour counterpoint small, stitched textured areas that (as in the rest of the work in this exhibition) are built on toothy canvas surfaces and wax sgraffito grounds. Printmaking, batik, painting, quilting and stitching are equal partners in Caldwell's process.

Selected by the artist, and installed throughout the exhibition, are several fragile and mended textiles from archives of the Textile Museum of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Peterborough Centennial Museum, and the artist's own collection. These old and carefully repaired pieces of cloth harmonize with Caldwell's language of mark-making. For example, in her more than 10 metre long Day by Day (2003), we see a scroll-like series of iconic sewn figures. Caldwell says, "Day by Day is a sampler of marks that result from ordinary stitching, making a patch, making a mend, making a seam, just the most basic of stitches, the most functional." With this vocabulary, the artist is restating the materiality of her work as she claims a context for it.

She works in deference to domestically prescribed utilitarian skills, and yet pulls them away from their private arena and symbolically places them into the exterior world of the land. "One of the great things about cloth as a material is that it disintegrates easily - it's so fragile that it is continuously being made and remade into something new. Fragments containing a previous history are reconstructed into a new object … at least historically that's how it was. We don't do that as much today. Cloth does not have the same value that it once did. For me, the repair and reconstructing process builds a sense of history, and it all becomes a part of the cloth."

In an adjacent gallery lie two books. Both serve as "how-to" teaching manuals for the acquisition and presentation of effective and proficient skills required for the mending and preserving of household fabrics and clothing. Nearby, a 19th-century sampler demonstrates a young girl's cross-stitch alphabet embroidery skills, and an oddly shaped wool sampler shows off impeccably hand-sewn buttonholes, tucks, gussets, seams, decoratively scalloped hems and an embroidered monogram. Next to them are two early 20th-century white cotton slips from the artist's collection, one detailed with white fancy embroidery around the bodice. Both are worn to the point of disintegration. They lay flat on light boxes, isolated behind Plexiglas. The artificial light reveals the dresses' "innards" like an X-ray film. Stains, patches and thinning areas are mapped out - unintended marks that were never meant to be scrutinized. Presented in this fashion, the garments are neither artwork nor artifact. They are hybridized objects with the symbolic connections that Caldwell pulls from the past - and they are stand-ins for the women who repaired them as well as providers of a language from which Caldwell extrapolates. Even as they are disintegrating, they are kept in good repair.

All quotes are from conversations with the artist in spring 2003.