Seeing Through Layers

By Gitte Hansen and Judith Tinkl, 1992

Seeing Through Layers is an exhibition that brings together the work of five artists who share approaches to the creation of ideas in cloth.

The work of Jennifer Angus, Verle Harrop, Mary Anne Jordan, Erica Licea-Kane and Susan Dowman Wilchins presents images and physical fabrics that are structurally and metaphorically layered, superimposed, embellished and overlapped. The physical reference to the construction methods used, and the reference to the layers of meaning and personal associations embodied in the work, materializes the multi-faceted metaphor suggested by the title.

The last 20 years has seen an explosion of interest in cloth and fibre and an intense exploration of new and old ways of working with them. Traditional textile techniques of printing, dyeing and colouring from global sources have re-emerged to inspire the works in this exhibition. Batik, shibori, papermaking, basketry, feltmaking and printmaking, among other techniques, are all used by today's fibre artists.

New definitions have been invented to accommodate the diverse and varied directions that artists working in textile and fibre media have chosen to follow. A general distinction may be made between those who construct their work from “scratch,” such as tapestry weavers, and those who modify already existing materials, such as dyers, fabric printers, quilt makers and embroiderers. The latter have been loosely grouped in a field called “surface design.”

The abstract art movement and its dialogue and aesthetics, which culminated in the 1960s and '70s, found a natural resonance in the great fibre artists whose careers flourished at that time. More recently, thinking in the art world has turned away from pure abstraction and reduction towards the re-introduction of image and the accessibility of meaning. Artists working in every media have been part of this movement.

The cross-pollination of ideas between media, disciplines and cultures is a potent influence in changing artistic directions. Artists working in textile and fibre media look to the ideas of other contemporary artists, while also being moved by historical textile techniques and traditions. The works included in this exhibition provide the opportunity to explore such pluralism.

This phenomenon is particularly evident in the work of Jennifer Angus, who has extensive experience in Southeast Asia. Her concerns and interests are focused on the implications of colonialism and on the tensions between ruler and subject, which colonialism produces. She expresses these themes by juxtaposing richly embellished decorative surfaces with starkly realistic photographic images.

Rather than looking into the past, Verle Harrop's work is motivated by ideas from technology. She finds her images by looking into our very structure and the structure of the universe using high-tech, remote sensing devices. In an apt union of old and new, she presents these images by using the traditional techniques of appliqué and quilt making.

The work of Erica Licea-Kane and Susan Wilchins seems related to the formal visual explorations of abstract painters; however, their inspiration is drawn from natural sources. Both mention the influence of aerial views and maps as starting points in their work. Their mutual concern for structure and pattern is evidenced by Licea-Kane's interest in pieced quilts, and Wilchins's use of microscopic photographs of plant and animal tissue.

The work of Mary Anne Jordan, like that of Angus, incorporates an intense interest in history and in the art traditions of different cultures. Using collage techniques, combined with printing, dyeing and weaving, she conveys the energy and excitement that she finds in historical and ethnic textiles. She evidently shares an interest in technology with Harrop, since she is currently exploring the possibilities of computer-aided design and the implications for artists of such design possibilities.

These artists are concerned with looking beneath the surface, penetrating hidden layers of meaning, examining cultural implications and the impact of new technology and ideas. While sharing the concerns of all contemporary artists, this group can be distinguished by their connection to textile traditions. They recognize that these traditions can only remain strong when followed with courage and originality. Angus, Harrop, Jordan, Licea-Kane and Wilchins pay homage to these traditions by revitalizing and re-inventing them with intelligence, energy, imagination and respect. They are part of a creative continuum that reaches back in time to the dawn of history. In seeing through layers, their vision is clear.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada