Warren Seelig: Machina Textrina

By Sarah Bodine and Michael Dunas, 1996

Take parachutes and chain link fences, or buildings wrapped by the artist Christo - all result from the fact that “textile” is inherently dichotomous: a constructed plane both pliable and sturdy. Even the composite members of a textile embody this idea of both support and skin. It is hard to think of fibrous elements in a raw state being solely identifiable as part of the structure or part of the surface.

Skin-support, surface-structure - through textile techniques, dichotomy becomes a basis for personal material inquiry and the artist comes closer to understanding the physiology of form. It is these mechanics of craft that Warren Seelig engages, the very energy of which is the basis of his investigation. The materialist claims that the rightness of the form results from the abiding interest in how form follows the function and how form follows the necessity of its construction. Seelig’s understanding of the conundrum of craft and textile yields a form less determined by necessity - more serendipitous, playful, inventive, vernacular, natural and engaging.

When introduced to the craft, Seelig was absorbed in the making of cloth and weaving; he understood that a structure could be made through a planned pattern of warp and weft, producing a visually provocative plane of colour, texture and tone. But soon he began to realize that the structure of cloth is something hidden within the cloth, conditioning its shape and form but not necessarily determining such features as texture or colour. His current work continues to suggest that structure and membrane are interdependent, dynamically coexistent but visually and materially distinct.

This is easier to see than it is to explain. When Seelig first began his inquiry, he made lengths of double-weave cloth that assumed shape through the insertion of Mylar segments into pockets formed by the two elements of cloth. The Mylar acted like a skeleton allowing the cloth form to fold about an axis like a hinge. When hung upright, the work suggested a window blind or shutter or fan. Again, the image seemed familiar in its mechanics, but the piece retained the visual conundrum as to whether the structure of the Mylar or the double-weave cloth created the intriguing form.

In his current work, Seelig uses another familiar mechanism - similar to that of an umbrella or bicycle wheel where the steel spokes radiate from a central axis. The multiple forces exerted upon the spokes (from the inflection of gravity and the tension of the taut fabric) produce familiar arc-like geometries. But unlike the earlier pieces with double-weave cloth, these are more transparent. The viewer is welcome to explore the way they work and to engage the construction visually. The cloth does not hide the support system as did the Mylar; we can see the details of their relationship - how the steel spokes relate to the Tyvek membrane and how the mechanism itself functions.

One of the striking features of these works, in light of their sophisticated design, is their irregularity: the members are hand-forged, the forms are balanced through trial and error, the Tyvek is not handled like the commercial product it is, and the spokes are not regular in their pattern - not even the shapes themselves are truly arcs or justified curves. In combination, this irregularity is magnified as the fluid lines of multiple arcs seem to intersect just a bit too serendipitously to suggest pre-design control. The craft is in the temporal engineering, in the direct response to material and technique, and in the resolution of forces in a form that is personal, idiosyncratic and empathetic.

Abstraction is now tangible. A constructive process plays out through hands-on manipulation.

In describing these works to a group of civil engineers, Seelig said, “These works are not static, but appear to be buoyant or in some kind of suspended animation or stop action. The softly detectable dynamic internal forces, along with the illusion of energy caused by the radiating spokes help to create this sensation. Although the works are stable, they are closer to the brink of structural stability”.1 The brink occurs when we realize the pressure exerted by the spokes. In the process of construction, it is the moment for Seelig when a form comes into being through its own energy; and for us, it is the moment when we realize the illusion of surface is metaphorically buttressed by a corresponding constructive reality. Seelig speaks of a sense of buoyancy, which is the primary visceral reaction to all his work - the sight of an elastic body floating in space, defying gravity (albeit with a tender stabilizing pressure from beneath). The underlying support is what we feel empathetically to be buoyant - light, cheerful - as with balloons, confetti or party streamers.

A 19th-century animal trap hangs on the wall in Seelig’s studio, as well as panoply of wire contraptions, mechanical toys and shop-worn tools. They seem right at home with the circus-like atmosphere of his wall-hung, ceiling-mounted structures hovering about the room. Like trapeze artists, the pieces create bewildering patterns in the air as they defy gravity through balance, tension, timing and strength. An uncannily similar scene is depicted in a 1926 photomontage by constructivist László³ Moholy-Nagy, Look Before You Leap, in which a group of acrobats is connected spatially by a series of thin diagonal lines; foremost among them is a woman whose body contorts gracefully backwards to fill the space of a large bicycle-type wheel. A multidirectional rhythm emerges from these tautly balanced gymnasts, performing in an indeterminate space, connected only by thin black threads and assuming strength through their intersections.

Experiments with idiosyncratic construction have occupied modern artists, starting with the Constructivists. In his fascinating description of constructivist aesthetics, theorist Charles Biederman (influential in the 1920s with de Stijl artists) talks of a “spatial plane” as the key to constructivist work. By this he meant to distinguish the essence of relief as a form that hovers between the two- and three-dimensional realities of objects. Biederman understood the dynamics of this form as based in “symmetry,” the key to non-mimetic art. Relief constructions, he suggests, are suitable means for establishing “multiple centres of symmetry”.2 The observer moves before the piece in what he calls an “arc of symmetry,” creating a situation where the only true “problem of motion” is the spectator. Although Biederman was concerned primarily with an orthogonal form, the dynamics of his analysis have been applied to all varieties of relief.

When an artist creates a flat, rectilinear plane, he or she allows the spectator to take in the whole artwork frontally. In constructing an orthogonal relief on a plane, the artist extends the horizontals and verticals. Further, by keeping the construction symmetrical but multiplying the attenuated forms, the artist gives the spectator space to find his or her coordinates, permitting power over perspective. The result is a common space where the viewer’s real life-space and the aesthetic space of the art become one. This search for common social space was the goal of Constructivism. Induced interaction via spatial structure was its new spatial order - a conditioned environment, a modern aesthetic trap.

What is interesting about Seelig’s textile approach is that he does not transform space exclusively from the wall outward, as was customary for earlier constructivists such as Vladimir Tatlin in his “Corner Reliefs,” or El Lissitzky in his “Proun” rooms. Textile prototype of rugs (floor), tapestry (wall), clothes (body) and canopy (ceiling) have no presumed coordinates. They use functional rather than ideological starting points for relief.

In Seelig’s work, the axis of symmetry conscribed by the linear pattern of the metal engineering shifts almost casually about the room, never assuming the necessary coordinates of the wall to buttress the projection of relief. The pieces also never seem to be “in the round,” nor do they need a sequential viewing; nevertheless, they maintain a directional force despite their trapeze-like flotation amid wall, floor and ceiling. What kind of space does Seelig’s work occupy then, if not the illusionary space of painting or the real space of sculpture? It is best understood as decorative space. Instead of using perspective or anti-perspective techniques, as picture making does, or using the haptic space of volume, mass or weight as sculpture does, his decorative constructions rely on a set of abstract manoeuvres - like framing, grid, field and pattern- to lend a psychological coherence to the environment. It is a space that mitigates our need for fantasy and reality - a space that appears familiar and induces interaction.

Experiments in decorative space appear in early constructivism - the de Stijl group: Piet Mondrian’s studio, Theo van Doesburg’s interior designs and Gerrit Rietveld’s furniture all suggest constant experimentation with visual grids that begin to take over the dynamics of the environment using an amalgam of painting, furniture and architecture. Anni Albers, with her interest in architectural fibre, wall-works and screens, tried to establish the space of textile in relationship to Bauhaus theories of painting and architecture, which strove for a total composite environment. Space was a central issue for modern artists who worked with abstraction, construction and the desire to get closer to the spectator; and decorative ambient space seemed to offer engaging alternatives.

Today, the need to devise a new decorative space seems less pressing than it once did. Painting took over the cause with minimalism’s colour field, with pattern’s and decoration’s repetition all incorporating the idea of decorative space into a revision of painterly language. A middle ground has not been maintained or developed, and has not vibrated with the urgency to find a new space for a new time.

The work in Machina Textrina still maintains the tenuous proposition that a place exists between textiles, reliefs and paintings. It decidedly breaks away from the forms of rug, tapestry, garment and canopy, from the idea of weave as a generative element to form, and from surface as an optical illusion of the structure. It works away from the painterly idea of the grid as implying the limits of colour, from colour as the depiction of flatness, and shadow as the illusion of form. What this struggle suggests is that all of these ideas are in transition as the need for a space closer to the spectator develops, and the energy of artistic effort is transferred to a middle ground of implied behavior - the area of the decorative.

In order to fully appreciate this decorative sensation, it is important to see Warren Seelig’s work in concert; in an installation incorporating a number of pieces where the notion of decorative space comes alive. Pieces of floating, coloured fabric actually project out and are buoyed by a metal armature that acts like a reconfigured field energized by many such reliefs, axes and reset coordinates in the visual environment. The spectator seems to float amid shifting tension points - the plumb bobs, geometries of line and angle - seeking to find Biederman’s arc of symmetry. An atmosphere of carnival pageantry pervades the space with the unique decorative quality of disorientation and pleasure.

Working this way through the dilemmas of decorative space and visual abstraction is rewarding in its struggle to establish aesthetic space without transgressing upon nature or yielding to it - that is, being comfortable and secure without being alien. We desperately want to be natural on our own terms. By recognizing a middle ground - a space between - we acknowledge these problems. Through abstraction and decoration, artists like Warren Seelig try to extract a common area, if only an incipient ground of relief, where the psyche can move forward and still behave naturally.

Notes:

  1. Warren Seelig. “Wall Relief and Three-Dimensional Suspension Sculpture Utilizing Tension and Membrane Structures,” Spatial, Lattice and Tension Structures Proceedings, (IASS-ASCE International Symposium, 1994).
  2. Biederman, pp.118-119. The relationship of Biederman’s theory to Constructivism came to our attention in George Rickey’s Constructivism, (New York, 1967).

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada