By John Armstrong and Sarah Quinton, 1996

Fancy explores textile patterning and embellishment. The exhibition title refers to the term “fancy-work,” used to describe decorative needlecrafts such as lace making, needlepoint, appliqué and crochet. The four artists in this exhibition may be seen to have extended the definition of this term - they have altered or depicted their fabric sources using a remarkable range of conventional and improvisational techniques based on sewing, mending, embroidery, cake decorating, collage and impasto (glazed oil painting). Their labourious approaches to handwork create an extravagant material presence that is both physically and conceptually layered. Techniques and subjects frequently associated with the modesty of art made at home are intentionally celebrated. These elaborate reinventions of familiar textiles range from pointed, even humourous critiques, to caring acknowledgement.

Susie Brandt, Rummy Gill, Anna Torma and Rhonda Weppler make work that is grounded in their often complex cultural heritages as well as in their studio-based, contemporary art practices. Their artworks reenact the state of contested flux within which tradition, in its struggle to maintain current relevance, exists. Decorative patterning associated with textiles - which may be understood to represent “tradition” - is buried beneath layers of paint, dissolved by over-washing and over-stitching, taken apart and sewn back together, or squeezed out of a piping bag. On one hand, such careful (if eccentric) rendering pays homage to particular cultural precedents. On the other hand, the references to “authentic” traditions found in these newly created hybrids also serve to subtly destabilize conventional expression, suggesting both the desires and the risks associated with the transformation of tradition.

Here, motifs associated with traditional, popular and “high” art are intentionally overlapped to create a web of reference: quilt-work's obsession with “busy work” and thrift (an economy often shared by 20th-century collage artists); the much-trafficked traditions of Indian paisley and Hungarian embroidered flora and fauna, and; the parallels between the geometric designs found in modernist painting and in domestic textiles. The artists productively eschew the strict dichotomies of innovative and conventional art, or, of dominant and less-represented cultural expression, by playing out a particular art-form's circulation, cooption and ongoing re-evaluation. This exhibition charts these artists' interest in making sense of the values implicit in culturally inflected art by working in between established traditions, in order to develop a vital relationship with historical art and craft. The flights of (whimsical) invention present in Fancy are laid over serious meditations on the structures and assurances of inherited custom and orthodoxy.

Susie Brandt commandeers some of quilt-making's “virtuous” characteristics - thrift, precision, hard work and beauty - and refashions them into fabrics that are relentless in their questions of comfort and well-being. Her human-scaled coverlets and blankets are made up of radically over-sewn scraps of fabric, other peoples' embroideries, bits of lace and doilies. Brandt's textiles speak of the compression of time; her hand is fixed to that of the needleworkers whose artwork she has recuperated. With these potentially “nostalgic” materials hovering in the background (or foreground, depending on who you ask), Brandt asserts a labour-intensive process that playfully invigorates both periods of production.

Rummy Gill builds her indigo blue-drenched paintings upon grounds of Indian silk saris and paper photocopies of textiles, which remain partially visible beneath layers of paint. The masking of the underlying fabric metaphorically recalls purdah, the custom of veiling women in India. Her small-scaled paintings refer to traditional Indian printed fabrics, decorative motifs found in Indian architecture and William Morris's textiles. The repetitive quality of the printed textile is fastidiously rendered here, both in her paintings' reiterated serial format, and in the layer upon layer of rhythmic pattern, which reflects the accumulated, overlapping filters of her Indian, British and Canadian cultures.

Anna Torma's large, stitched assemblages contain images of - and are quite literally held together by - embroidered emblems and patterns found in traditional Hungarian folk textiles. Torma's fabrics are drenched with play and perseverance, memories and dreams, journal entries and doodles. Tenuously pieced together networks of “shredded and roughed up” bed sheets, pillowcases, cheesecloth, handkerchiefs, fluff and worn clothing freely quote traditional North American quilting and piecework - art forms unfamiliar to Torma until her arrival from Hungary. The poetic stringing together of these fragile constructions, embellished with primary red stitching, recounts a post-Soviet Hungarian diaspora.

Rhonda Weppler draws upon domestic textiles she has collected as well as other handcrafts - pastries, Easter eggs and embroideries - made by members of her Ukrainian-Canadian family. Weppler creates a trompe /'oeil effect with paint on shaped canvases in order to imitate the texture, colour and structure of crocheted potholders and knitted kitchen cloths. She presents an evolution in material and style - from 1940s butchers string dishcloths to the acid palettes of 1970s acrylic yarn potholders - suggesting an incontestable link between the changing fashions in home economics and the economies of art. With a confectioner's touch (she works in a bakery), and a nod towards modernist abstract painting, she conceives thrift store potholders as objects of prominence and wit.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada