Small World

By Sarah Quinton, 1998

Sara Hartland-Rowe, Darrel Morris and Richard Purdy are stock-takers of limitless proportion - the stories they tell are vast inventories of personal moments, writ large and small, presented with candour, economy and diary-like regularity. They are “bricoleurs,” improvising with processes, images and the materials at hand. Small in scale, hand stitched and hand painted on fabric, the artworks in this exhibition are made with materials that can be found right under your nose: Hartland-Rowe's sewn drawings are details of images culled from popular culture, art history, biblical illustrations and other peoples' diaries; Morris's snapshot-sized autobiographical embroideries are tension-laden with stories of confrontation, humility and self-discovery, and; Purdy's painted journals document each day's most memorable event. While it could be said that virtuous qualities such as thrift, moderation, rectitude and modesty are supposed to be kept in place by activities such as sewing and other domestic tasks (in other words, diligence can foil human iniquities), in the hands of these artists, diligence is responsible for unveiling the vices it was meant to keep in check.

“It's a small world” is a colloquial expression; most often uttered in flat astonishment. It is a common response to an unimaginable coincidence: when we unexpectedly bump into people, places and things that we recognize, the encounter can ignite a dim memory, which in turn unwittingly ushers in a series of bottled-up remembrances. There is a note of resignedness that accompanies this proverbial saying. “Small world” is also an oxymoron that at once conjures both little and big, local and global, private and public -conflicted extremes of everyday living. The works in this exhibition bridge such perceived divides by diligently mining banal human experiences. They allow for the importance of self-representation. Sara Hartland-Rowe, Darrel Morris and Richard Purdy have demarcated a shared psychic and social middle ground that conflates homeliness and worldliness.

Sara Hartland-Rowe locates countless found images, which she adopts and uses to bring to light situations that “...happen all the time. It's hard to tell stories these days, because we don't have a common language or any shared religious stories or folk tales. The tiny stories are the ones that remain.” Confoundingly familiar, disengaged “in-between” moments abound in her stitched drawings. In King and Queen (1996) - from a 14th-century French Book of Hours - a royal couple sits up in bed wearing silly “what now?” expressions underneath their royal crowns. Was the medieval image ever meant to be so funny? In Nativity (1996) - from a Renaissance painting - two monkeys glower at one another from their vantage point overlooking a nativity scene. One covetous monkey is ready to snatch an orange away from the hands of the other (positively gloating) monkey. Meanwhile, out of our range of vision, gifts are being exchanged freely in celebration of a holy birth.

Hartland-Rowe casts a wide net, poaching scenarios that were underwhelming - if noticed at all - in their original context. Narratives that were once rendered as informal activities set off in the background are now placed in the foreground. Disconnected from their source, magnified and framed by expanses of run-of-the-mill white cotton fabric, these interrupted narratives appear as part of a story this fabric no longer contains - like the last bits of a fresco on the wall of an ancient ruin. Given the variety of Hartland-Rowe's sources, which include libraries, museums and public archives, it is difficult to know where these images originated. In this guise, they reveal a subtle language that lays open the ineffable qualities of everyday life. Her idiosyncratic style overwrites her obscure sources and creates palimpsests that provide us only with running-stitch traces.

For Darrel Morris, sewing wards off the enemy. His annotated narratives are stitched into found materials - palpable layers of sewing thread, cat hair and old clothing. Morris spills story after story, creating inundations of frank, chilly and touching anecdotes. Parents, bosses and lovers loom large in these obsessively constructed textiles, and the subject - Morris himself(?) - often comes up short. Even the cat in Lillie (1993) feels swindled: “It makes me sick how I suck up to this guy - just for food and water.” InYou Promised Me (1993), not-so-sweet nothings preside: a small child tackles the weight of crushing disappointment. In Boy's Room(1995), four youths lounge provocatively on an unmade bed, “dangerously” constructing experiences they can call their own. Nothing (1997) is a snapshot-sized image of a boy surrendering to a guilty, idle moment, staring straight into the viewer's eyes. In this white-on-white work, the stitchery is made up of unravelled canvas threads, sewn back into the canvas cloth. Here, even thrift is riddled with guilt.

Unwanted Gifts (1997) pays tribute to well-meaning “gifts” that Morris has received throughout his life. Although he has never known anybody who even remotely embraced the romanticized masculine ideals embodied in Unwanted Gifts (by a helicopter, a fire truck, hunting decoys and pistols with holsters), as a young boy, even his own clothing was dutifully patterned with motifs such as guns, wildlife and the untamed landscape. Such social codes are the “unwanted gifts” these embroideries proffer. Morris would “...love to not have the baggage that I make art about.” His textiles are allegorical accounts of his own history as he looks into themes of power, sexuality, intimidation and loyalty. “The more honest and deep the work, the smaller it gets.” His is a voice that tells retrospective truths, the voice of the uninhibited child for whom all is equal.

Richard Purdy has been keeping a daily journal since 1975. His visual notations record the most memorable event of the day on various bits of cloth he has found at hand. Through the years, Purdy has painted his journal on silk saris, sarongs, handmade paper, scarves, Tibetan bookmarks, a pair of trousers and a tent. Three “chapters” of the diary are included in this exhibition: Journal 1985-1986 (gouache paintings on handmade paper, 81 x 152 cm); Journal 1986-1989 (gouache paintings on a dhoti [cotton loin cloth], 167 x 398 cm); and Journal 1995-1996(painted on a silk jacket bought on sale at the off-the-rack fashion retailer Le Château). All the entries are organized in a sequential grid: postage-stamp-sized paintings are inscribed across the fabric, memorable event after memorable event. The journal-of-the-moment is carried with him at all times, accumulating stains, tears, creases and smudges - incidental abrasions that are the corresponding markers of his practice.

In the early years, Purdy's records were inscribed in Blissymbolics (Charles K. Bliss's symbol language for deaf children developed in Canada and Australia in the 1960s), but he has now developed his own personal symbolic code. Here we have symbols and illustrations that picture his experiences, carefully levelling one with the next: falling head over heels in love takes up as much pictorial space as the words tired, sick, discouraged and political action revolution, or things such as a snowstorm, the Eiffel Tower, a hot dog or a turtle. Purdy's compressed meditations knock apart the jumble of daily details into manageable bits. Life's events are rescued from oblivion. Whether they are chronological records of actual events or more fanciful inventions of desire, his commitment to remembering cannot be overlooked. The rigour of this proposition - both proven and pending - subverts any sentimentality: Purdy's incremental measurement of time casts memory as unfettered material phenomena.

The small worlds pictured in this exhibition are reflecting pools. They allow us in for a fleeting moment, and mirror an ephemeral completeness back to us. At once, they convincingly portray authentic personal experience while rendering those experiences incomprehensible. Our experiences may well, after all, be indescribable. But if there is a lag in our full comprehension of the stories being told (and there must always be a lag - these stories, after all, are not our own), the materiality of these textiles carries a significant element of what is being communicated. The “script” used here is written through the materials.

Impeccably preserved and presented, Sara Hartland-Rowe stitches the barely perceptible evidence of human situations into a blank slate of white cotton sheeting. She has chosen this plain fabric ground as the deceptively spare site for her contemplative needlework to reside in order to bring human dramas into focus.

Darrel Morris's used clothing and recycled fabric remnants bring with them associations of past use. His stories are enlivened when we understand that he is participating in the “something-from-nothing” tradition that is often associated with rug hooking and quilt making.

Some of the inherently delicate cloth that bears the records of Richard Purdy's experiences has fallen prey to mould and decay - the effects of daily handling and the wear and tear of time. Now too fragile to be handled much, Journal 1986-1989 can be read as a present-day archaeological fragment. It is not only our imagination that reconciles an empathetic response to these labyrinthine stories, but also our sensate experiences of the textiles themselves, which combine to provide a constant shifting back and forth between the narratives and the hand-worked materials, and between our mediated experience of the world and our physical presence in well-known surroundings. These embellished textiles augur our own spheres of comprehension.

All quotations are from conversations with the artists.

Artist Biographies

Sara Hartland-Rowe completed a BFA at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1990, and an MFA at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1993. She has recently exhibited at Mercer Union (Toronto), London Regional Art Gallery and Historical Museum (London, Ontario), and Forest City Gallery (London, Ontario). Hartland-Rowe teaches in the Visual Art Department at the University of Western Ontario, and is represented by Wynick/Tuck Gallery in Toronto.

Darrel Morris is an artist and storyteller who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he graduated with an MFA in 1987. His work has been shown widely, including the American Croft Museum (New York), Speed Museum (Louisville, Kentucky), and Dart Gallery (Chicago). He is represented by Lyons-Wier Gallery in Chicago.

During the last 24 years, Montreal artist Richard Purdy has mounted over 70 exhibitions, including installations at Musée d'art contemporain (Montreal), Art Gallery of Western Australia (Perth), Galleri Ankeheuset (Stockholm), the Musée de la civilisation (Quebec City), Mercer Union (Toronto), and CIAS Crestet (Crestet, France). Purdy teaches in the Visual Art Department at the Université du Québec à  Trois-Rivières.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada