In the previous research points we were asked to look at the designer-maker, the crafts person and textile design originating at the hands of designers for commercial textiles. Where textiles are part of a crafts process the maker is integral to the process, working with a high degree of skill when struggling with their chosen materials. There is a strong focus on process and the materiality of the textile – and I would suggest that the line between craft and art is a fine one and probably quite fluid, as it is a matter of emphasis – whether on the making process or on the final outcome.Both these stand in contrast to a designer who is hired by a commercial organisation to develop textile ‘products’. This designer may give their name to an item, or they are anonymous, as the central brand identity is determined by the organisation they work for. The central aim is commercial production for a consumer market, and so production is potentially of a large volume of stuff, whilst for artists and craft people the object is unique or made in small batches, while the object is displayed in a gallery or high end shop as a rarefied object for a discerning buyer. The object made within the crafts and/or arts world is part of a positional economy of connoisseurs, galleries, museums, art critics and auction houses, which the mass produced consumer item only becomes part of this once it has gained an ‘aura’ from age or from retrospectively applied ‘names’ of makers.
It is probably not always that clear cut – artists such as Sheila Hicks started out as an artist (paintings), but was also a designer-developer of fabrics for companies such as Knoll (Simon (2011)). Her work was bought by corporate customers for their interiors, and her installation work inspired interior designers to create ‘environments’ for displaying goods. She has a great sense of material and colour, and technique is central to the expression. Does that then make her a crafts person or is her work art?
I am aware that the fibre art movement of the 1960s that Sheila Hicks was part of is seeing a bit of a revival with a retrospective of Hicks' work in 2011, major exhibitions of fibre sculpture and tapestry in the US and France (Porter et al (2014), Bellu et al (2013)). The artists who worked in this area were in many cases fine artists who had trained at art college. Some of them, for example Hicks, Magdalena Abakanowitz, Kay Sekimachi and Lenore Tawney subsequently learned weaving in workshops of cloth or tapestry weavers, and then, when key books on ancient techniques where published, they explored new ways of looking at ancient textile techniques using material experimentally and to a scale that I am sure would not have been explored much before.
The definition of an artist as someone concerned with concepts and 'grand ideas' is probably not completely accurate. Crafts people moving into the arts arena work with ideas, but using their technical skill and expertise to express this, whilst artists may have started in one area and then moved into another, such as textiles, but then they over time gain the skill and understanding needed for their chosen area. And some go as far as giving their work conceptual titles, which I sometimes read with some scepticism. Why suggest all manner of poetic allusions if what we are seeing is a beautiful piece of weaving? It is perfectly valid, I believe, to produce the textile in its own right and display it as a textile object, without having to legitimise it within the institutional discourses of art critics, galleries and art history and theory that carry such weight. The existence of the object does not necessarily become more meaningful by being placed within a language of theoretical constructs, but then there has for some time been a phenomenological strand in art theory that seems to place these objects within an 'otherworldly' experiential space.
Anyway, back to the two artists I will discuss here - I have chosen to look at the work of a modernist artist, Cornelia Forster (1906-1990), a relatively unexamined painter, print maker and tapestry artist who learned her weaving in the French tradition, and Sheila Hicks (b.1934), who comes out of the US based fine art sphere. Both use colour as an expressive medium, both use textile media, but one was not a widely know artist, and the other has had a long and continuing art career with a prominent profile in the art and textile world.
Cornelia Forster worked in various media, some of her work being quite interesting, some pieces looks a bit derivative to me, but it is interesting for its roots in French-Swiss Modernism, and she worked in various styles and techniques, including surrealism, abstraction, painting, drawing and sculptural abstraction. What I find interesting in her tapestries is that firstly, from an art historical perspective she worked early on in the style of French work, close to the work of Jean Lurcat, who played a key role in the revival of the French tapestry industry during the mid 20th century. Her work follows the tradition of wall-hung works, woven tapestries in the Aubusson technique. What dominates the web-site collection of her work linked here, are tapestries in colour harmonies following pallets of soft pastels for example in her flower compositions, but she also had abstract pieces woven into tapestries. Colour in the decorative flower tapestries is used very sensitively. The works look decorative and do not challenge any perceived notions of this medium, which may have something to do with her commissions, but they are woven to a high degree of skill and there is a keen sense of the tradition of the tapestry medium, with a strong mid-20th century aesthetic. Most of her tapestries have designs that cover the whole surface of the work, there is a lot of detail in some, and the designs are mainly vertical, whether the works are landscape or portrait. What I like about these works is their fairy tale quality. There is something narrative about some of them, figures appear in dense flowery jungles, or the spectator can dream themselves into fantasy jungles of vegetation.
I have to admit now, that there are very many good narrative tapestry artists to choose from, and that I chose Cornelia Forster because she is not well known and I think she should be more widely recognised, and secondly because I find her narrative representation interesting and suggestive, but know that this is not my own style. Hence I find the aesthetic attractive because it gives me something that I couldn't create myself. I see aesthetic affinities in Michael Hearld's illustrations and Klaus Haapaniemi's designs, and this is something that reading fairy tales evoke, the otherworldly, the mystical, the beautiful and sometimes the gruesome.
Now why would I then choose Sheila Hicks as my second choice, when her work is fully abstracted? Well, I got very excited about the fibre art movement when I first bought the book by Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen, Beyond Craft: Art Fabric (1973). In it were photographs of these huge works in different techniques by a collection of textile artists, quite disparate, from different countries, but the ones that stood out where Hicks and Magdalena Abakanowicz. I had taught myself tapestry weaving 20 years before and here were works that I felt intuitively had informed the books I had been reading at that time.
Hicks' work was inspired by ancient pre-Columbian textile techniques. She improvised weavings on a small portable tapestry frame and had worked for industry as well as becoming an important exhibiting artist. Many of her works use wrapping techniques. She works on a large scale as well as her small miniature tapestries, but there was a sense of freshness to her work that may have looked at ancient techniques, but spoke with a contemporary language. Her sense of colour is interesting, sometimes she works with harmony, at other times with contrasts. Her work includes long strands of linen wrapped with smooth, lustrous silks, and more recently her work includes chunky wrapped cushiony bundles of fabric. She has also worked with embroidery and has used elastic bands, paper, shells and other unusual materials in her work.
Hicks has had a long career, and in 2011 she had a retrospective in the US. She works from a studio in Paris, and has several assistants to help. Not surprising really, she is not young but has been working since the 1950s, and she continues to exhibit. I read somewhere that she works very hard and her large body of work is there to show for it. I find her range tremendous, and from time to time look for examples of her miniatures on the web, and they seem to be exploratory inventions using fibre mainly in all manner of colours. So, although she often uses wrapping this technique provides openings for various ways of showing off the fibre. I am not always convinced by some of the names given to the pieces, I think they are strong in themselves, they are constructed structures, independent and complete things made of fine yarns. I also find other artists' work .from the same period (1960s) fascinating. The works in sisal and rope by Jagoda Buic, Abakanowicz and Aurelia Munos were to a scale and in forms that show real vision and substance of thought in making. They are about process and material and express something beyond themselves. I think these artists really understood fibre and what it could do and wanted to make significant statements about that. There is also much fine work coming from Japan, but due to space here I will just end by linking to fine pieces of string work that Toshiko Horiuchi Macadam made for children's playgrounds.
Bellu, Sylvie et al, Decorum, Paris: Flammarion, 2013
Constantine, Mildred and Larsen, Jack Lenor, Beyond Craft: Art Fabric, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1973
Porter, Jenelle and Adamson, Glenn, Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present, Prestel, 2014
Simon, Joan et al, Sheila Hicks: 50 Years, Yale University Press, 2010