Subject to Change –

By Sarah Quinton

Cloth – whether it is woven on high-tech looms or made by hand; whether made of wool, cotton or '100% unknown fibre' – is never still. When inflected with time or activity, cloth changes character. Dirty and porous, it absorbs stains and can be malodorous. Cloth has a memory: a worn linen shirt bears creases; when stroked in a contrary direction, a smooth velvet surface is disrupted; bed sheets are rumpled after a night's sleep. These properties are metaphors for the symbolic cycle of decay and renewal, marrying the physical with the conceptual. fray presents works of art that speak to the disruption of social norms, the poetics of dismantling and reassembling workaday objects, and the longing embedded in the recuperation of cast-off materials. Flexible and unstable, cloth is provisional – subject to change. The Textile Museum of Canada houses a collection of over 12,000 handmade textiles. Like other collecting institutions, the Textile Museum strives to protect its fragile holdings from the effects of time. In his seminal bookArchive Fever, French philosopher Jacques Derrida argues that even though archives are a depository of civic record and public social history, they are stocked with "personal, intimate traces of private lives."1 Museums provide a context for active translation; they are both guardians that strive to stabilize that which is destined to physically come apart, and vehicles that incite personal memories, emotion, inspiration and renewal. fray stands for the impossibility of the fixity of things and ideas.

Drawing is an important aspect of David Merritt's studio practice. With a pencil, he maps out linear networks that meander over the paper's surface and pool into stream-of-consciousness notations that are represented as water-coloured areas that contain fragmented linguistic moments. In fray, Merritt installed clouds of gently tangled sisal threads that extend these networks into material form. (The artist pulled apart hefty load-bearing ropes to disclose these delicate filaments.) As much 'not there' as 'there,' the drawing/sculptures seem poised to fall apart with a gust of air. /h/ (sisal) takes the shape of a column of unbound energy formed around a core of atmospheric conditions. Pre-linguistic guttural utterance, the work's title is a phoneticization of an exhalation from deep within the body: an iteration of that which is beyond words. Its individual fibres make irregular wavy lines, exhibiting a physical memory of their former tightly wound ropes. now, and harnesses this natural crimp and releases that energy into cursive script which is embedded in the field of sisal. Phrases such as 'now and again,' 'now or never, ' 'now and always' visibly emerge (popular song titles picked from the artist's collection of memorabilia) and tug on personal memory banks in a physical realization of the ineffable.

Liz Sargent's Into the Web and 8 Wool Blankets are, like Merritt's sisal drawings, made of unheralded materials. Into the Web is composed of two chairs and an ottoman. Sargent methodically removed their upholstery fabric and pulled each section apart thread by thread. From a height of about six feet, she dropped the filaments one by one back onto the host furniture's frame, forming a random, lofty heap that is springy and voluminous – difficult to reconcile with the mechanically compacted structure from which they were extracted. Similarly, 8 Wool Blankets is made up of old blankets that Sargent cut into strips, coiled into bedroll-like tubes and stacked discreetly in the corner of the gallery, softening one small aspect of the room's hard edges with its frayed cross-sections. These dismantled materials are contrary to the preservationist mode of a museum – yet they reconcile their physical qualities before they were woven into quotidian fabrics with their inevitable destiny – to return, fatigued and transformed by wear and tear, to an incomplete condition with countless possibilities for renewal. In the artist's words: "The object or material itself becomes a tangible archive, on which actions are inscribed that resist the fleeting nature of memory."2

Doug Guildford's large crocheted sculptures are works in progress, poised to return to the artist, who will loop and re-loop the copper cable and durable polyethylene twine into ever-larger organic masses. Precious and lacy, heavy and robust, Doily, Mat and Wasp withstand and even benefit from exposure to the outdoor elements. As part of his performative relationship to these works, the artist literally immerses them into the landscape, often on the Nova Scotia seashore, where they inhabit the perpetual motion where the sea meets the sand. This could be seen as a potentially destructive act, were the materials not already proven to be able to withstand and 'soak in' the forces of nature. Guildford 'grows' his spiral systems like generative topologies that take on a different shape each time they are installed because they are soft and collapsible. They are strong, and can withstand continuous flexing without rupturing, whether on the beach or in the museum.

In his essay 'Textile Art – Who are You?' cultural theorist Sarat Maharaj interprets a key term from Derrida's thinking: "An 'undecidable' – as Derrida puts it, is something that seems to belong to one genre but overshoots its border and seems no less at home in another. Belongs to both, we might say, by not belonging to either."3 Maharaj foregrounds the quilt as an example:

 

However much the 'quilt' aspires to the state of 'artwork,' it does not shake itself free of references to the world of making and producing. Hung up on a wall, framed, put on display, it catches our attention as statement of form, colour, and texture. We soar away with its allusive, narrative force. But we never quite manage to set aside its ties with the world of uses and functions, with the notion of wrapping up, keeping warm, sleep and comfort, some feeling of hearth and home. In all of this, it is no less easy to blank out memories of its links with the domain of processes, crafts, and techniques.

 

Half on-wall, half-on-floor, it stands/lies/hangs before us: everyday object and artwork in one go. Domestic commodity which is at the same time the conceptual device. The quilt stands/lies/hangs before us as a speculative object without transcending the fact that it is a plain, mundane thing. Not entirely either and yet both, an 'undecidable.' Has the quilt not always straddled such a double-coded space, an ambivalent site of this sort?4

 

Kathryn Ruppert-Dazai, Luanne Martineau and Kim Ouelette create narratives that are embedded in 'plain, mundane' fabrics such as blankets, cotton sheeting or swaths of knitting. For all of their mundaneness, these textiles are no less important to the artists' conceptual devices than the images that they comprise. And certainly, 'some feeling of hearth and home' is indeed near to these artworks – perhaps more accurately suggested here as some other feeling of hearth and home as the artists depict natural disasters, delineate their innermost fears and evoke feelings of alienation that teeter on a threshold where everyday objects meet works of art.

Autobiography led Kathryn Ruppert-Dazai to improvise her artistic methodology. She adapted her figurative skills as a painter and learned how to knit, sew and crochet so that she could join the physically expressive qualities of these processes to her images' narrative force in a gesture that, like Maharaj's quilt, straddles 'a double-coded' space. When she had difficulty learning these skills on her own, she would seek out help from friends and family in an informal environment of hand-me-down knowledge, a socially-held bank of memory and experience that is personal and intimate. Her figures are crocheted, knit and woven with an affective rough-and-ready hand. This crude facture is a reminder of the agency of the handmade object. Ruppert-Dazai's "big, scary textiles"5are emotionally touching narratives that are imbricated with pathos that is revealed by holes caused by dropped stitches and threads in disarray.

Broken threads figure prominently in Kim Ouellette's stitched landscapes on pieces of vintage wool blankets. With delicate traceries of thread delving in and out of the blankets' lofty depths, one side of the drawing's surface leaks through to the other, confusing front with back. This palimpsest hints of layered readings. The imagery for Dog Team and Climbers (orange) is traced from historical photos taken by Byron Harmon, the official photographer at Banff National Park in the late 1880s. Translated into soft materials, these outdoor adventurers are shifted from a venerated, historically valued site of adventure and conquest (the authored, 'official' photographic document) to a terrain that is tamed by domesticity and intimacy. Tangled in Blue/Lake on the Woods is an image of a great Canadian icon, the single tree: Ouellette's thready version is perched atop a knoll – a stretched to distortion blue-stripe wave with a sky-blue background. The nostalgic blankets that Ouellette has chosen to inscribe are soaked with the spirit of times gone by.

A reading of the physical characteristics of Luanne Martineau's Panorama Flood 1 and Panorama Flood 2 reveals these long and narrow horizontal pictures to be neither textiles nor drawing; rather, each is an amalgam of processes that, even under close scrutiny, is difficult to grasp. Fragmented vignettes fade in and out of the pure white cotton background: rustic fence gates, pools of flood water, picturesque landscapes and decaying rural idylls make for a dystopic atmosphere seldom seen in textile milieux. Framed and under glass, these unanchored images oscillate between fine silk embroidery, thinly drawn ink lines, sewing thread and paint. The expanses of space between each isolated image cuts short any narrative potential – only imaginary threads can weave order into Martineau's ambivalent hand. Sweetie, a sculpture laid informally on an ersatz tabletop, thrives on this 'family' of ambivalence. Sweetie stirs the calm waters of doll culture by presenting a persona that is at once a warm and cuddly toy and a bizarre figure the size of a small child. Made of richly dyed polychromatic felt, the figure's cardigan-skin morphs into intestinal tubes – this bulge is a breast, a bladder…? Felt is a nomadic material that can be traced back as far as the 7th century BC, an ancient fabric that has adapted and survived. In his essay "Felt's Alterity," theorist Kenneth Hayes ascribes felt, through myth and structural analysis, with an outsider status that is thick with socially constructed meanings:

 

The knot by which felt is made is an ancient figure for despair at the intractability of the world; it inspires dreams of a release that can only be imagined as magical. In mythology, a single thread sufficed to undo the winding labyrinth, but the Gordian knot had to be severed. All woven textiles constantly threaten to unravel, and this unraveling is a compelling metaphor for the loss of a hard-won and carefully maintained order. This 'coming undone' is irresistibly imagined as the dissolution of a self that we understand as a kind of woven tissue. Felt, on the other hand, does not ravel.6

 

Susan Detwiler's group of three sculptures – Green Plot, Blue Plot and Black Plot – fit sideways into this theme of knotty despair. These spiral-rolled discs are agglomerations of women's dresses, slabs of industrial felt and swaths of human hair that threaten to come unravelled from their layered strata where the body, its skin and its clothing are folded into one another. Hair, like wool, is an attribute of the body. It is a stand-in for absence, as well as a symbol of desire. Like Martineau's Sweetie, Detwiler's floor-based sculptures are visceral expressions that cry out to be touched even as their grotesqueness fends off that urge. Could it be that a body has dissolved among the tyrannies of domestic life, leaving these pools of residue as memento mori? Each sculpture exudes a personality that is fashioned by old clothing, colour groupings and squeezed-in memories. Martineau and Detwiler work productively with their materials' capacity to collapse, to fold in upon themselves and form shapes that simultaneously allude to figuration and abstraction, producing inconclusive hybrids that enact Maharaj's ambivalent site of the familiar quilt, "… everyday object and artwork in one go."

It is difficult to address the subject of textiles without inculcating ideas about the body and clothing. There is an undefinable margin where the body and textiles join; where the garment supports the body's shift from a natural space where nudity, bodily functions and uncleanliness are acceptable, into a social realm where the body is typically dressed in clean, socially appropriate attire. Clothes present and prepare the body to engage with a group and become accepted in social situations: those individuals who do not adhere to such conventions break taboos and run the risk of disaffection.

Allyson Mitchell's wall hangings titled It Ain't Gonna Lick Itself and Orangina are a pastiche of misogynist representations of women as seen in soft porn and advertisements as well as bumper stickers and t-shirts. They are montages of fun fur, shag rugs and chenille bedspreads – seductive, cozy materials that belie their political messaging as they depict human-like female characters in provocative scenarios, engaged in acts of sexual play modeled after Playboy magazine images. Mitchell's subjects exude personal agency, which disrupts aspects of dominant Western culture such as the ever-dispensable female nude, in a conflation of hair, fur, skin and clothing. The artist is working both with and against the 'idealized' female, exploring the fringes of representation. From one perspective her subjects are indeed discomfiting as they tread nakedly on taboo terrain; but their carefully modulated deep-pile flesh tones also locate the figures' surfaces as animal skins, apparently a socially acceptable, albeit unclothed state. Mitchell's artworks are agents of change and proponents of a status quo – all the better to expose disingenuous social mores.

Mortality is often a driving force in the creation of art. Death is at once an end and a beginning, represented by images of the body and its vital functions. Questions of autobiography and mortality surround the process-based, performative practices of Sarah Maloney and Nadia Myre. Maloney knit her larger-than-life Feet and Vertebrae, Sacrum, Coccyx out of white cotton string, working from anatomical engravings. As though the body's skeleton is in need of more fortification than its natural condition can provide, the artist made custom 'garments' for every little moveable part. Her protective intervention allows for the body's inevitable decline as much as it allows her to indulge her own flesh and bones. Skin, a self portrait, mimics the contours of the artist's body with thousands of stitched-together tiny pink glass beads that form its human-scaled surface. Imbued with the subtle irregularities of the artist's labour, Skin is a physical manifestation of time and, like a well-loved garment, exudes a 'lived-in' quality. Like Allyson Mitchell, Sarah Maloney has a desire to make the body visible, gendered and energized.

Nadia Myre's The Scar Project is an experiment in collaboration. It is an invitation for participants to actively explore personal memories by physically shaping their experiences of being wounded into corporal, emotional and spiritual scars. Myre provided blank ten-inch-square stretched canvases, or surrogate skins, into which participants were invited to trace a representation of their scars. Equipped with scissors, needles and thread, skilled and unskilled hands depicted wounds (and contributed to a web of stories recorded in a book nearby) that told of personal undoing, growth, guilt and retribution. They sewed to heal the wounds inflicted by history, to hide pain and to make it public. The torn and mended canvasses were added to those already on the wall in a massive installation where symbolic and figurative images of piercing and fixing, disfigurement and healing, were assembled in patterns of autobiographies that melded into a collectively accrued archive. From intimate and personal beginnings to a public display of many voices, The Scar Project embodies Derrida's idea of the public archive as something that is "stocked with personal, intimate traces of private lives." 7 Even in matters of public record our own stories are provisional – subject to change.

 

Endnotes
1 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression , trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
2 Liz Sargent, artist statement, 2006.
3 Sarat Maharaj, "Textile Art – Who are You?" Reinventing Textiles: Gender and Identity, ed. Janis Jeffries (Winchester: Telos Art Publishing, 2001) 7.
4 Maharaj pp 8-9.
5 Conversation with the artist, Spring 2006.
6 Kenneth Hayes, "Felt's Alterity," Felt, ed. Kathryn Walter (Toronto: The Museum for Textiles, 1999) 7-8.
7 See Derrida, above. 

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada


 

List of works at the Textile Museum of Canada:

Millie Chen
Happy & Love (2006)
Site specific installation

June Clark
Dirge (2004)
Rusted metal on canvas 
91.4 x 153.4 cm

Hannah Claus
Repeat along the border (2006)
Looped video projection 
3:20 minutes
DVD

Quilt (2004)
Pre-existing quilt, fibre optics, LEDs, micro controller, infra-red sensors, electronic components
121.9 x 91 cm (approx)

Susan Detwiler
Green Plot (1999)
Human hair, green dresses, felt 
96.5 diameter x 12.7 cm thick

Black Plot (1999)
Human hair, black dresses, felt 
213.4 x 64 x 12.7 cm

Blue Plot (1999)
Human hair, blue dresses, felt
106.7 x 30.5 x 12.7 cm
Gift of the Artist, 2005
MacDonald Stewart Art Centre Collection – MS2005.035

Rachel Echenberg
Blanket (snow) (2003)
Single channel video
3:50 minutes
DVD

Doug Guildford
Doily (ongoing since 2003)
Nylon-coated copper wire; crochet
4.6 m circumference

Mat (ongoing since 2000)
Galvanized copper cable; crochet
40 pounds

Wasp (ongoing since 2002)
Polyetheline twine; crochet
8.5 m circumference

Mouth (2006)
Found bait bags, extended with nylon twine. Crochet and knots

Sarah Maloney
Vertebrae, Sacrum, Coccyx (1998-99)
Knitted cotton and stainless steel armature
189 x 35.5 x 35.5 cm
On loan from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
Gift of the artist
Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2002

Brain (1998-99)
Knitted cotton, stainless steel armature
35.6 x 35.6 x 152.4 cm

Feet (1998-99)
Knitted cotton, stainless steel armature
38.1 x 43.2 x 61 cm

Skin (in progress, 2003-2006)
Glass beads, nylon thread, steel armature

Luanne Martineau
Panorama Flood I (1998)
Ink, poster paint and silk thread drawing on cotton
30.5 x 304.8 cm
Collection of Suzanne Martineau and David Kolata, Chicago

Panorama Flood 2 (1999)
Ink, poster paint and silk thread drawing on cotton
30.5 x 304.8 cm
Collection of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, Calgary

Sweetie (2004)
Manipulated raw wool, table
61 x 91.4 x 17.8 cm
Collection of Ken Bradley, Calgary

David Merritt
now, and (2006)
Sisal rope fibre
228.6 x 259.1 cm

/h/ (sisal) (2006)
Sisal rope fibre
Variable dimensions

Allyson Mitchell

It ain't going to lick itself (2005)
Fun fur and plastic on found chenille
200.7 x 271.8 cm
Courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art

Orangïna (2005)
Fun fur and plastic on found shag
354.8 x 195.6 cm
Collection of Eliza Griffiths, Ottawa

Sassmunk (2006)
Foam, glass, fake fur, found textiles
Courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art

Sassfag (2006)
Foam, glass, fake fur, found textiles
Courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art

Sassquog (2005)
Foam, glass, fake fur, found textiles
Collection of Matthew Hyland, Toronto

Nadia Myre
Indian Act (2000-2003) 
(10 pages)
Seed beads, stroud cloth, thread, Indian Act
35 x 41cm
Purchased for the Prêt d'oeuvers d'art collection, Musée National des beaux-arts du Quebec

Contact (2001-02)
Seed beads, canvas, thread
37.5 x 37.5 cm

The Scar Project (ongoing since 2005)
Site-specific installation

Kim Ouellette
Dog Team (2004)
Thread on blanket
30.5 X 40.6 cm
Collection of Maxine Walters, Ottawa

Climbers (orange) (2005)
Thread on blanket
31.1 X 41.3 cm
Collection of Gwen MacGregor, Toronto

Tangled in Blue/Lake on the Woods (2005)
Thread on blanket
40.6 X 50.8 cm

Backwards Prairie Series #1 (2003)
Thread on blanket
27.9 X 33 cm

Stacked (2005)
Thread on blanket
10.8 X 10.8 X 10.2 cm

 

Kathryn Ruppert-Dazai
Twin white, I don't love you (2005)
Acrylic, mohair, angora, wool
165 x 165 cm

The blanket (2005)
Acrylic, wool, sparkly thread
165 x 165 cm

The conversation (2005)
Acrylic, unspun jute, mohair, wool, sequins, plastic, acrylic, angora
165 x 165 cm

Liz Sargent
Into the Web (2002)
2 chairs / deconstructed fabric
121.9 x 243.8 x 304.8 cm, installed

List of works at the Koffler Gallery:

Therese Bolliger
furfeather (2004)
Fur and feathers
25 x 550 x 450 cm

Susan Detwiler
animal skin (raccoon) (1998)
Wool
63.5 x 33 x 3.8 cm

animal skin (squirrel) (1998)
Wool
38.1 x 15.2 cm

animal skin (rabbit) (1998)
Wool
61 x 25.4 cm
Collection of Curtis Donnahee, Guelph

Cal Lane
Untitled (dirt floor) (2006)
Dry dirt
300 x 300 cm

David Merritt
untitled (after Sam Cooke) (2005)
Sisal rope fibre
Variable dimensions

Allyson Mitchell
Sassquirrel (2005)
Foam, glass, fake fur, found textiles
Collection of Carla Garnet, Toronto

Sasskunk (2006)
Foam, glass, fake fur, found textiles
Courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art

Nadia Myre
The Scar Project (ongoing since 2005)
Site-specific installation

Liz Sargent
8 wool blankets (2003)
8 wool blankets, cut into strips
175.3 x 152.4 x 101.6 cm

Susan Schelle
murray (2004)
Giclée print, edition of 3
95 x 127 cm

wolf bluff (2004)
Giclée print, edition of 3
95 x 127 cm

shoal bay, 2004
Giclée print, edition of 3
95 x 127 cm

riverside (2004)
Giclée print, edition of 3
95 x 127 cm

naiscout (2004)
Giclée print, edition of 3
95 x 127 cm

Sarah Stevenson
Smoke (2001)
Nylon, wire, lead
44 elements; variable dimensions

Jeannie Thib
Sub Rosa (2003)
Screen print on wood panel
203 x 274 cm

Influx (2003)
Screen print on wood panel
203 x 274 cm

Cluster (2003)
Screen print on wood panel
203 x 274 cm