Sotto Voce

By Marsha Wineman

Sotto Voce is an exhibition of sculptural textiles by Sylvia Ptak and Celeste Scopelites. Both artists have extensive histories using the techniques of weaving and, in Scopelites’s case, spinning. These disciplines are “woven” into their works like vestigial mannerisms. Ptak and Scopelites explore the ambiguities of communication through manipulated objects, fabrics and fibres, which make reference to handwriting, language, and both verbal and non-verbal communication.

Ptak and Scopelites are preceded by artists such as Lenore Tawney, who has been experimenting with textiles as a sculptural art form since the 1950s. Tawney’s art moved away from the “form follows function” mandate of the Bauhaus, and into museums and galleries. The work in this exhibition is rooted in the 1970s pluralist movement - a response to the privileged position that modernism offered painting and sculpture (disciplines that employed stable materials such as oil paint and steel), and which deemed art made from less permanent materials as unimportant. Artists who might be aligned with pluralism - Eva Hesse, Joyce Wieland, Judy Chicago, Christo and Miriam Shapiro - deliberately included media such as fabric, thread, domestic objects and clothing in their work, and thereby broadened the conceptual and material landscape of art making.

Sylvia Ptak’s artworks are composed of abstracted “words” worked into cloth. Ink-stained threads that have been pulled out of woven fabric make up her word shapes. Experienced with using the loom, her understanding of the architecture of weaving informs the way she reshapes fabric. Ptak’s early explorations began with a journal. She kept her writings, as many of us do, in a book. Initially, she altered her journal as a way to protect its content. Later, she considered “...the boundaries where words break down. Removed from their context, the original meaning of the words no longer exists and they become fragments, marks, gestures, symbols, scribbles...” She enlarged and reduced these pages until the words became abstract shapes, in much the same way that children repeat words until they become abstract sounds. Using the physical media of fibre, Ptak replicates written language. These word-like forms acknowledge the human instinct for communication and comprehension.

Celeste Scopelites works with found objects, “useful things,” which she emphatically and skillfully wraps with strands of fibre. Her fascination with the craft of spinning and the accumulation of materials is evident: threads are wrapped around sealed boxes, roots and stemmed crystal goblets, as if these objects stand in for a spinner’s bobbin. Contrasting thoughts of confinement or of contemplative (or curative) restoration are evoked by the wrapping. The unexpected combinations of materials and Scopelites’s uncanny handling of them produce a surreal effect: although the original functions of these objects are “silenced,” these unlikely juxtapositions are not uselessly mute.

Ptak is fascinated with language, with words, and formations of words. Her work is an exploration into the impulse to communicate, using her invention of “unweaving” cloth by plucking, twisting and dyeing selected threads. These “writings” emerge in lines that follow the weave structure of the fabric and are configured like prose, poetry, or notational forms that one might find in handwritten inscriptions. In Unbound (1998), cloth embedded with word-like coils has the personality of handwriting and the semblance of spontaneous note-making. In Manuscriptus: entry 10-98 (1998), there is no cloth or confined border, just suspended fibres resembling the conventions of the handwritten page. Under Scrutiny (1998) is comprised of many small microscope slides lined up next to one another on a narrow shelf, and imprinted with fragments of actual handwriting. The script has been enlarged and reduced - only rudiments of alphabet shapes remain. Ptak’s “manuscripts” approximate the residual impression one might have after reading pages of personal entries, where the essence of the experience is remembered in fragments or shards. The materials used in producing these distillations are elements of textiles. The physicality of this medium provokes an elemental response that is felt throughout our physical being, our emotions, our intelligence and our souls.

Scopelites’s works also benefit from a corporeal reading that often arises from fibre-based art. She is compelled to bind objects, thus muting their intended functions. Scopelites’s installations consist of a bound stone, roots, goblets, or boxes (with sealed contents) - the incongruous bondage of each sets up surreal tableaux. The effect is like wordless poetry. In Conservatory (1998), the bound and desiccated remains of once-vital plants double for neurological systems and constricted neural pathways. The area of binding implies an energy reservoir. The gallery walls are stained green with chlorophyll (the walls are scrubbed with maple leaves) and resonate with the matter of life force. Is the energy trapped or conserved? In Finis (1998), a humble rock is swaddled in cotton cloth. The monumentality of the sculpture contradicts the value of its core. This substantial and elegant sculpture is a puzzle: where does the end begin?

Five Offerings (1998) is a collection of dust, pollen, petals, feathers, milk-weed silk and other once-airborne particles, which are confined in excessively wrapped nesting boxes. They are presented as gifts, but the delicate contents will never again see the light of day. Crystal goblets with floss-trussed stems are presented in The Three Graces (1998). A lyrical chorus is reflected through extraordinary wall shadows. The goblets are wobbly on their bound feet. Unable to stand in balance, they belie their mythological command over beauty and charm. For Scopelites, the bound object is the counterpart both for function denied and for dormant potential. Objects with restrained functions are invested with unbound eloquence.

Ptak and Scopelites have each found an instrument to give them voice through the medium of fibre. It is interesting that the derivation for the word “text” comes from both “context” and “weaving.” And, just as the word text resides in the word textiles, Ptak and Scopelites find a means to imbue their textiles with unspoken words. Through the elegant vehicle of manipulated threads, and using the metaphors of implied writings and bound objects, Ptak and Scopelites examine the quiet spaces between communication and comprehension.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada