Directions: from historical sources

By Helen Duffy, 1989

A new gallery is like a blank canvas; it is free from the lingering traces of previous occupiers' concerns and untouched by evocative associations with the past; it allows the first occupant to put a distinct mark of identity on the place straight away.

The many aspects and features of the new Contemporary Gallery of the Museum for Textiles will be much commented upon. But it is the opening show that is bound to be remembered long after the flame of publicity has died away and successive exhibitions have taken their turn. Hence the very first event, the inaugural presentation, is in many ways as important as the bold “premier coup” - an artist's first inspired stroke on primed canvas of exceptional quality.

Fibre art, in the sense in which we understand it at the present time, constitutes a free-spirited form of artistic expression. It is an art of discovery, imagination and flexibility, an art addressed as much to the mind as to the eye.

By its very nature, fibre art permits an intense fusion of image and process, a juxtaposition of textures as well as an interplay of technical effects. Material and its inherent form-creating abilities, the interaction of colour, and the potential of three-dimensional and spatial possibilities, provide an area of infinite exploration suggesting a wide range of techniques by which new ideas can be tested and realized. Working with pliable, malleable and tactile materials permits an enormous diversity of expression, and sets artists free to make works of widely differing dimensions, which are no longer bound by the convention that the importance of content depends on size.

In the early stages of its development during the 1970s, this kind of exploration was often conducted with a freewheeling, self-indulgent play of imagination that renewed the very notion of creative restlessness. But substantial changes have taken place gradually during the course of the past few years. Fibre art has become more coherent, thought-provoking and expressive; that is, reflective of the artist's experience, insight and awareness.

The theme of this exhibition serves admirably to introduce works by artists who investigate historical sources outside their immediate environment, and who draw inspiration from rich and varied world traditions. Few of the exhibits have a direct link to specific historical materials. Indeed, the “source” is not always easy to detect because it might be merely suggested, implied or reformulated. We may detect stylistic affinity with given patterns, textures, manipulative processes (rooted in native craft repertoires), and in indigenous art and tribal symbolism, or we may simply risk an informed guess on the basis of our own sensibility and knowledge.

In my view, the appeal of most successful fibre or textile works lies in their ambiguity; in the rare, exquisite detail; in the intrinsic quality of the surface, and; in the layers of meaning that are compacted into one object.

This exhibition includes many works that are intensely personal, indicating that research into the historical past can lead an artist to a search for self and to using memories as raw material. A willingness to restate certain ideas and feelings means entering into a dialogue with the past via the work of the imagination.

For example, although Kai Chan's work is not clearly autobiographical, certain elements rooted in the artist's childhood experiences and perceptions have given rise to a highly stylized art, which combines delicate forms and shapes in a unique and unpredictable manner.

Indeed, what might look deceptively free and easy in his three-dimensional constructions is rarely mere improvisation. Chan works with the resources that most artists have, but do not always use: memory, imagination, curiosity and access to an accumulated store of knowledge gained by study and observation. His mature style has always been remarkable for its clarity, simplicity and economy - a quality especially evident in his delicate constructions with paper, bamboo and string.

In Lyn Carter's sculptural work, materials are ready-made, unassuming and malleable. “The idea of recycling is intrinsic to textiles;” Carter writes, “and, as it seems to be a strong desire in my own work, I think it is my most basic connection to the field of fibre art.”

Carter appears to want to restore dignity to useless discarded odds and ends, from chicken wire and cardboard, to scraps of fabric. She uses this stuff imaginatively and sympathetically, and the dialogue between artist and material, as well as the intimacy created by the act of unravelling and remaking, lend a suggestive direction to her work.

After several years of concentrated studies of 16th century Elizabethan costume and the shaping of female identity, Carter now explores more abstract ideas that are harmonious with her current concerns.

Dickson's art has become synonymous with the exacting technique of fine bead weaving, a skill practiced universally from remote antiquity. The long history of beads and their manifold uses in tribal art, ornamentation, personal adornment and decoration is fascinating in itself, but Dickson's work is firmly anchored in our time. Her thoroughly contemporary objects come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, always consistent with a very personal mode of expression. They speak of a geometric orderliness that is perfectly managed and controlled, where flat random patterns are enriched by sparing use of decisive colours.

Dickson now constructs unpretentious metal armatures to hold and support her decorative “wearables” and “usables.” These welded steel and braised copper structures lend context and specificity to her stylish, inventive works.

Sarah Quinton does not title her work, leaving it up to the viewer to recognize her sources of inspiration. In her constructed, shaped pieces, the compelling relationship between content and raw material is as vital as the system of proportions that inform them. She brings her materials into such careful balance that we are not aware of their weight - only of their structural harmony. A sophisticated, formal precision is quietly evident in all her work.

Glowing, sensuous red used to be the declared favourite in fibre and textile art well into the late 1970s, but it gradually faded out and is rarely encountered these days. Susan Warner Keene's wall-mounted works reinforce our appreciation of the sheer visual appeal of clear, vibrant colour, handled with sensitivity and conviction. The artist's acute understanding of her medium allows her to pull out those jewelled shades and hues, making us consider them in a new light.

The spirit of her radiant, expressive works seems at once exclamatory and subtle, evoking experiences of the natural world and its complexity of spiky textures, overlapping planes, shadows, patterns and tonal nuances.

Dorothy Caldwell's investigations of colour, shape, space and surface, evolve mainly through intuitive decision making, and abstractly encompass autobiographical and personal qualities. In her work, spontaneity and improvisation is evident and extensive; intricate patterns form a varied rhythm intermeshed in such a way as to suggest both background and image. Caldwell's technically competent and aesthetically pleasing pieces in this exhibition are subdued in colour and lean toward a quiet mysteriousness and eloquence.

Directions: from historical sources brings together six artists who work in a variety of disparate modes, indicating that what they have to say can be expressed in any number of ways, or can take a variety of forms at one time. This multiplicity and diversity can be both confusing and exciting, yet it gives Canadian fibre art its intensity and energy.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada