Art_Textiles at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery
The spaces of Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery have been recently filled with tasteful works of an ever-so-slightly controversial nature – textiles. The ambivalence with which the medium is approached stems from the blurring of lines between traditionally understood art and craft; handmade designs and conceptualism. ‘Art_Textiles’ aims to restructure our perception not only of the medium, but of its shifting application in contemporary visual arts.
Few materials hold as much historical weight and symbolic meaning as textiles. They are burdened with notions of conventional domesticity, controversial associations with feminism and gender politics. It is safe to say that the majority of artists involved in the show are women; yet these are not women one imagines knitting while hunched over in a rocking chair. Rather, they are a very interesting generation of artists who utilise the medium with an acute awareness of its strengths as well as weaknesses.
The show gathers artists from all around the world, from the inimitable Grayson Perry to the surrealist creations of Dorothea Tanning, their work arranged in four large spaces in the newly refurbished gallery. The centrepiece of the exhibition belongs undoubtedly to the master of contemporary textiles – Magdalena Abakanowicz. ‘Abakan Rouge III’ hangs from the ceiling in the very centre of the exhibition; thick, rug-like and heavy, with a distinct organic materiality while its roundness coupled with a deep red hue is reminiscent of human organs. Perhaps it is this unmistakable bodily resemblance which made the first sculptures somewhat controversial. She acknowledges this herself, recalling that ‘the Abakans irritated. They were untimely.’ On the other hand, the ‘feminine’ connotations give way to the overbearing limitations of the Communist system in Poland at the start of the artist’s career. Abakanowicz has broken away from the tradition of decorative tapestries hanging quietly against flat white walls, and breathed three-dimensional life into a technique previously reserved for craft.
Her avant-garde approach was already apparent during her art school days; beginning with oversized gouache paintings through which she seemed to be reclaiming her right to individual expression. In fact, it would appear that the sculptor’s work demands relevance regardless of the time and place of its existence. Although her work has been written about extensively it is always worth consideration – Magdalena Abakanowicz’s work is about human beings: the condition of existing in this world, in our skins amongst other minds and bodies, occupying the shared space and time we have been given.
More pragmatically, the techniques of weaving, threading, stitching all require a lot of patience and focus – qualities which encrust our everyday life with satisfaction, but are so scarce in a world dominated by the instant gratification of clicking and swiping. Themes of merging the old with the new are strongly visible throughout Art_Textiles. The artists approach questions of digitisation with subtle flair rather than outright criticism, employing skill that is carefully combined with modern technology. Elaine Reichek‘s handcrafted tapestries are said to ‘draw parallels between the pixel and the stitch’ – it seems that the shift from one to another occurs naturally, and the artist’s precise hand renders it almost impossible to distinguish her handmade creations from the digitally produced ones. She touches upon realms of history and legend in relation to symbolic materiality; her series Ariadne’s Thread refers to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, also including a digitally-generated reproduction of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. Reichek appropriates the mythological story to represent changes in the processes of art production and conception.
Similarly, Monika Zaltauskaite-Grašienė explores textiles from the perspective of an art medium, by using digital manipulation to produce large-scale tapestry reproductions of sculptures, or in this case a drapery. Essentially, the work presented is a cloth depicting… cloth. This multidimensional practice allows us to ask questions about the nature of reproduction, its boundaries and the results of crossing them in order to produce a brand new piece. Here, once again, it is easy to notice the relationship between digital and physical texture, while the sheer size of the work inspires awe.
In contrast to the steadily growing symbiosis of art and digital technology, some artists draw attention to the most basic, analogue necessity of textiles as material which is closest to the body, present from the beginning till the very end. Abdoulaye Konate‘s large-scale piece is a meditation on the nature of nationality, local history and conflict. The installation is palpably ‘human’ – with ivory teeth-like amulets and stains reminiscent of pale blood, while the fabric itself is thick and inelegant.
In a slightly more stylised way, Faith Wilding uses thread and wool to create an atmosphere of bodily warmth in Crocheted Environment, better known as the Womb Room. This careful wool arrangement is really the only piece on show which could be called immersive, with crocheted chains enveloping the viewer and further acknowledging the versatility of the textile medium. Wilding’s work is presented alongside other artists who share a very strong feminist conceptual background and aesthetic. The pieces date as far back as Miss Burton and Miss Gosling’s historical Dare to be Free: a suffrage banner for Women’s Freedom League from 1911, which supposedly softened the accusation hurled at the protesting women as ‘lacking femininity’. Also thrown into the mix is Tracey Emin, whose famous embroidered blankets are fully in line with the idea of a woman’s perspective and experience released through observations of the banal everyday.
While the inclusion of the banner is understandable as an attempt to contextualise the feminist approach to textiles, it could be said that such pieces are in danger of making the connections too obvious. Two-dimensional works by Helga Sophia Goetze and Miriam Schapiro‘s Anonymous Was a Woman seem to work in direct response to works like the Suffrage Banner; updating it to standards which are more relevant in contemporary circumstances. Although powerful and easily comprehensible, the motivation for the choice of medium could be described as somewhat outdated, and perhaps lacking in originality. Indeed, ‘Art_Textiles’ is clearly representative of the limited level of experimentation occurring within the field of art textiles as a whole. The exhibition is dominated by the use of revised but old-fashioned techniques, rarely stepping outside the method’s comfort zone.
Going against these safe modes of production are Do Ho Suh‘s ‘drawings’ created by embedding multi-coloured thread into paper and exploring a simple yet unique approach to utilising ‘soft’ materials. His sketches of numerous overlapping figures seem to spill straight out off the artist’s consciousness. The straightforward exercise of choosing paper instead of fabric demonstrates the artist’s natural ability to innovate within his chosen medium. In addition, Do Ho Suh’s large-scale works consisting of pastel-hued replicas of buildings created with sheer polyester strongly illustrate his desire to mould the technique around his ever-ambitious ideas.
More delicately, yet in a comparably individualistic manner, Anne Wilson focuses on the closeness of soft materials to the human body, appropriating pillowcases, bed sheets or found sections of ripped cotton. She delicately frames the material’s imperfections by tightly embellishing each slit and hole in the fabric with silky thread of muted colours. Another one of her pieces in the exhibition uses human hair instead of thread, making the object a poignant observation on the nature of leaving traces and the transience of being in a certain place at a certain time.
Despite the scope of ideas, it would appear that when discussing experimentation within fine art textiles, Magdalena Abakanowicz paved the way for grand-scale, sculptural treatment of the medium and the following modernisation. As most artists seem to embrace existing connotations and overt symbolism, Abakanowicz succeeds in putting a very distinct stamp on a process already so loaded with ideology.
Conversely, in discussing the disparity between fine arts and practical craft, it is worth noticing that despite using materials functioning in such close connection to our sense of touch, the exhibition does not encourage sensual interaction with the works on show. Putting them on pedestal of plinths and frames immediately amplifies their status as works of art no matter what their original function was, rendering the question of craft irrelevant.
It becomes apparent that artists who choose the medium of textiles must all be acutely aware of the philosophical background attached to it and still feel comfortable enough with the potential risk of crossing into the territory of craft. They must be willing to either take it and work with it, or consciously manipulate its current understanding. Abakanowicz’s decision to pursue the latter resulted in an incredible body of work, which will serve as a source of inspiration for generations of artists to come. However, for now, we can all enjoy the magnetic power of Art_Textiles central installation piece, which even when surrounded by many incredible pieces of art, still manages to retain an aura of the momentous tactility which has always made Abakanowicz’s works so memorable. She describes the medium as: ‘Soft, containing an infinite number of possible shapes of which only one can be selected by myself as the right, meaningful one.’ Surely, each and every one of the artists participating in Art_Textiles would agree with that thought wholeheartedly.