Dark Cloth

By Sarah Quinton, 2004

Dark Cloth conveys a range of social implications on the subject of cloth and its capacity to express powerful ideas about disheartening and violent conditions of contemporary life. Catherine Heard, Barb Hunt, Marcel Marois and Carl Stewart look contentious circumstances of our time in the eye; they challenge audiences to come face-to-face with raw and painful aspects of public and private life, and give intimate human voice to fearsome and dramatic accounts of homophobia, war, human mutation, animal extinction and cosmic annihilation.

Catherine Heard’s Cabinet upends the capacity of the decorative floral pattern to suggest the security and comfort of a domestic setting. For this exhibition, Heard has built an off-kilter room - a dramatic and intimate space with walls that are decorated with sprigs of dainty white-on-white floral patterning, the type of innocuous wallpaper design that so many of us grew up with. The artist’s approach to this decorative trope, however, is to integrate the patterned surface of plaster casts with low-relief casts of child-like bodies that engage the interior of the room from behind the wall, simultaneously emerging and retreating. Viewers become physically implicated in the realm of this imagery, and are drawn toward the chinks of light that escape from long, horizontal rents in the surface of the walls.

When confronted with commonplace repellants (violent movie scenes, carrion, automobile accidents and newly formed scars, for example), we don’t have to look at them, but we tend to. Similarly, we choose to peer into the dioramas of Catherine Heard’s Cabinet - a cabinet of curiosities that invites our scrutiny. The wall treatment has already led us to believe that, as benign and familiar as it might once have been, all is no longer comfortable. Each dramatically lit opening in Cabinet reveals a bizarre, distorted vista that conflates the human body’s fleshy core with a landscape of horrific description. Rivers, mountains, valleys, skies and rolling hills are modelled and tinted to insinuate a dreadfully ailing, dissected, irrational human body. Pustules ooze, rivulets gush, and stunted, twisted veins and arteries dot the landscape. These scenes meet Heard’s desire to present an image of an apocalypse that affects the human body both psychically and physically. She takes us with her to cross over to the other side, into a world of madness, of disbelief, of wonder and of illusion.

Barb Hunt works repeatedly with various forms of camouflage patterns to create sympathetic iterations of the grotesque human toll of warfare. Soldiers’ uniforms, lace assemblages and remnants of camouflage fabrics are laboriously transformed by Hunt into tributes to - or denouncements of - the casualties of war. There is a fine line between her compassion and her derision, which can be read as kindness towards the individual, yet disdain for the political mechanisms of warfare. Clothing, of course, is a clear stand-in for the body and, in Dark Cloth, Hunt’s use of camouflage patterns extends this metaphor to include a specifically coded fabric that calls up images of gendered uniformity. Her pink-embroidered incarnate, for example, turns camouflage fatigues (meant to conceal the wearer) into a humorous and revealingly extroverted display: the artist has outlined the irregular camouflage shapes of a khaki-coloured soldier’s uniform with pink embroidery, creating a feminized, vascular pattern over its entire surface. “Prettied-up” like this, the anonymous and authoritative outfit is rendered innocent; now, it would dress an individual, not a nameless soldier, and it would be impossible for the wearer to hide on the battlefield.

There is an uneasy relationship between presence and absence in Barb Hunt’s work. Her fodder is a roomful of military camouflage uniforms with significant parts of the protective garb cut away; it is a wall of skeletal remains, slung on hooks and queued in a massive, yet limp line around the perimeter of the gallery. Seams, pockets, collars and cuffs - the bony relics - collapse inward. These bodies are consuming themselves, and their wasting is a self-defeating cycle of war, a diseased state where the body has only itself to turn to for nourishment. Hunt’s folly is a quilt made of scraps recuperated from fodder’s remnants and shaped into simple floral motifs that shriek “Flower Power!” It and the lacy ceasefire call to mind Aristophanes’s play, Lysistrata (410 BC), where Athenian women, fed up with the Peloponnesian War, barricade themselves in the Acropolis and go on a sex strike to force their husbands to vote for peace with Sparta.

Marcel Marois’s images are taken from photographs and newspaper articles: the pixels of the printed images are well-suited to transcription into equivalent pixilated woven forms. Leurs esprits s’enfonçaient, desordonnes... is an unstable image that barely describes the shape of two whales struggling to emerge through the picture plane. The title is woven into the lower border of this three-metre wide, architecturally scaled tapestry. While the placement of this text may well refer to the original source of the image - the popular press - it also makes reference to Renaissance and medieval manuscripts and tapestries, which are an additional source for the narrative structure of much of the artist’s weaving from the late 1980s to the late 1990s. Manuscripts and tapestries were a primary form of information exchange in 14th-century Europe. Here, Marois draws a contemporary Canadian landscape - and our abuse of it - to our attention. The much smaller-scaled works in this exhibition, Eclat-Lumiere and Combustion atmospherique, suggest an apocalyptic vision in their fractured, explosive compositions - a destroyed, tragically excessive landscape.

Marois weaves atmospheric tapestries that are eerily abstracted images signifying the human disruption of the natural world. The three works in this exhibition cover a 10-year span, a time during which the artist’s focus developed toward a language of abstraction and away from his earlier allegorical narratives reflective of an interest in European tapestry traditions. These tapestries are pensive reminders of the tragic losses of natural habitats and the endangerment of natural species due to human intervention. The viewer almost becomes tolerant of these disturbances because the warmth of the woolen surfaces is soothing rather than alienating, even while the subject of the matter is disorienting. The viewer isn’t held accountable, but is left rather conflicted or unsettled. These textiles are representational, but they point to an uncertain world.

Carl Stewart places the viewer at the scene of the crime with Nice Shoes Faggot. Titled after courtroom testimonies given by the murderous perpetrators of a real-life hate crime, the work is a 24 metre long weaving that physically describes the fall taken by the murder victim. As Stewart tells it, “the textile... is a slow gradation of colour from black to blue to green to red to black. The range of colour imitates the strata of a landscape: the black of the earth, the blue of the river, the green of the vegetation, the red of the sky at sunset and the black of night.”

“In August 1989 a waiter from the Chateau Laurier finished his shift and walked through Major’s Hill Park on his way to Hull. In the park he was chased, beaten and then dropped headfirst off the Alexandria Bridge by a gang of teenagers. As they held him by his ankles off the side of the bridge the last thing one of his murderers said was, ‘I like your shoes’ and they let him go. At the trial when asked what they were doing in the park that night, one of the young men answered: ‘We were in the park to roll a queer for a bit of cash.’”
-Carl Stewart

Silhouette shoeprints are woven into Stewart’s long narrow cloth, and appear at regular intervals along its length, running in a downward direction. This repeated motif brings the textile’s cinematic qualities into focus, step by step. It situates the chase in the present, and prolongs the victim’s anguish into the present moment, as testimony to the very truth of its occurrence. A short DVD of the same title accompanies the weaving. Opening with a low-angled scene of a man running, the film switches back and forth between it and a blue-lit image of figures sleeping in tossed bed sheets. A voiceover maintains, “Everything is moving very fast...” with a second voice asking, “Why are we having the same dream?” As with Catherine Heard’s Cabinet (a work of the imagination), Stewart’s Nice Shoes Faggot (a work based on fact) confuses the space between dream and reality - between nightmare and insanity.

Textiles can be compelling in their capacity to generate exquisitely safe, private, domestic environments. Catherine Heard, Barb Hunt, Marcel Marois and Carl Stewart invert the optimism perceived to be inherent in domestic arts such as quilts, wallpaper and hand weaving, and lead us into a world inhabited by human angst and cruelty. It is through textiles - both literally and metaphorically - that these artists illuminate impossibly harsh human situations and subvert them into confrontational works of art. Darkly articulate, cloth can transmit ideas about worlds both beyond and within our control, true-to-life and illusory.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada