Monday, 20 April 2015

Study visit - Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern

A weekend in April the OCA had arranged a study visit to London to see the Sonia Delaunay exhibition at the Tate Modern. And it also happened that it was the last day to see Sheila Hicks' work at the Hayward Gallery. So off I went, met up with fellow students and wandered about the exhibition and further galleries to study abstraction, colour and application of art to/with fashion and design.

I knew a little about Sonia Delaunay's work before I went. I had of course heard of her and Robert Delaunay, but hadn't seen substantial amounts of it, other than when flicking through books. At the same time I know a little about Modernism in art and the Bauhaus and de Stijl in design history terms so felt reasonably prepared beforehand.

Anyway, the work was quite interesting, there was a lot of the Delaunays' interest in colour defraction and interaction on display, large target like circles, jazzy angular patterns and a very good display of her textile and costume designs. I enjoyed the show very much. My own work is more organic and maybe not inventive in the way the Delaunays and their contemporaries were. They were working with new theories of seeing and trying hard to look at new ways of seeing and representing things. It often feels now as if so many of these ways of seeing have already been seen, that so much work now is variations on themes, and personally I find it difficult to think anew about the textile material.

Of all the galleries in the display the very early representational work and the textiles ones were my favourites. I enjoy seeing how the artist used colour to try to find a new language of description. The gallery labels suggested Sonia Delaunay had been looking at Gaugin's work in her early works and this was apparent in the choice of themes and composition, young women from the countryside at the table for example, but not so many exteriors as in Gaugin, more a focus on the person in the interior. This interpretation may be due to the curation of the show. Maybe Delaunay did paint outside, but this was not very visible at The Tate exhibition.

The textile galleries contained many samples, films of models wearing garments made of the printed and embroidered work based on Delaunay's designs. The heavier woollen embroideries were very good, I liked the texture of the surface and there was an example of how she had used watercolour in a way that suggested stitch, with a stitched picture hung next to it to allow the spectator to make this connection. There were a lot of print design in books, on the wall, in drawn, painted paper designs with the printed fabric hanging alongside as examples in single colour ways. There were some costume designs and the costume itself made for Ballet Russe on an Egyptian theme with photographs showing them being worn. So there was plenty to look at and consider.

I think my work contrasts a lot with this work - my work is mainly constructed and I work with the organic form. Here was purity of line, geometry and dynamic colour divisions and selections that had been used quite intellectually to describe the modern life of an urbane culture. My work has not yet found a language of its own, but I intuitively feel that our own post-Modern (and I am using this term tentatively......) world is so diverse, so allowing of all manner of expressions that things are so complex now. Then there was a sense of direction for the French and German Modernists. They had strong progressive and radical purposes that gave meaning to their work. It was about the new, the clarity and purity of seeing and living; new materials and findings in science inspired them, industrial methods, speed and new ways of communicating gave them the impulse to see and make in new ways. I am finding it difficult to think about creating meaning now in a vast sea of meanings, but sense that there is something about custodianship and respect for people and environment that has become a necessity. In any case that is something to continue to reflect on as I work on my own things.

The Sheila Hicks work I have mixed feelings about. The display had three rooms; the first one you entered was a mixture of samples and finished work including a vitrine with wrapped batons in all manner of colours, a larger piece on hanging wrapped coiling elements, some of her wrapped 'cushions' and some samples including a section of the Ford Foundation embroidery recent re-made. In an adjacent gallery a few of her miniatures were on show. Mainly recent ones, and perhaps not all of the interesting ones. I like the ones were she has used shells and feathers, and overall I found it interesting to see the fineness of some of them, the wrapping in one of them was very fine. The seemingly freely created pieces look very fine when they are mounted in white and framed, it makes them seem quite delicate and unique, which they are, but this mounting enhances that sense even more.

The third room was a collection of large coloured cushions for the public to sit on. There was a film one could watch which showed how this type of display had originally been made for a much larger venue, and where the coloured cushions had been carefully composed through Hicks' direction. Here the colours were grouped rather than mixed, perhaps due to the smaller room. The coloured fibre inside each coloured 'pouffe'  was some sort of synthetic and it was held together by a fine synthetic mesh. Although a fun room for everyone, including families with small children I wonder what the purpose was with this work. We came late in the afternoon on a Sunday, so it was quite peaceful and you could sit quietly, as one couple plainly did, they seemed to be almost asleep. But I am not sure it did much more, it was almost like those coloured ball fun rooms for children in places like Ikea, which is an equally democratic play space. I am sure when the original display was created the intention of making an art work interactive was one of the driving forces. In a way then Sheila Hicks' work is almost reaching a purpose such as Toshiko Horiuchi Macadam's play spaces for children, allowing people to physically interact with the art work at a fundamental level. I guess it was about pleasure as well as about contemplation.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Tex 1 Assignment 4 Project 8 - reflections on constructed samples

This project ends with some questions on  the process and materials of the project:

Did you enjoy inventing constructed surfaces? Were you surprised at the results? Can you see a connection between your choice of materials and the types of structures you made – regular, irregular, small or large scale? Which samples worked best – and why?

These exercises were kind of interesting and challenging at the same time. I knit a lot, following patterns, and so do not usually ‘invent’ structures of my own, unless I do a bit of tapestry weaving or look a bit creatively at knit. That means that this use of yarn to freely assemble something into a synthesis to become a finished object can be difficult to think through. But I am fairly happy with the samples. I have also been studying the work of sculptural fibre artists and see that Ed Rossbach’s basket woven work is described as ‘improvisational’. Maybe that is what this work is all about – and I was working along on my woven/wrapped grid, looking at it occasionally when I saw a photograph of a Rossbach basket in a catalogue I have on mid-century American crafts (Museum of Arts and Design (2011)) where he seems to have been weaving open sections developed from any direction the ‘warp’ willows might fall in his construction, and there were quite a few coincidences in the way my own work was developing.

During the making of the samples (and especially these constructed ones) the work grows on you, and by looking at them over a longish period you start to see patterns and dimensions which can be built on. And yes, materials are crucial in this – whether they are shiny or matt, solid and dense, heavy or light. I have been looking at Eve Hesse’s work recently and am in two minds about it, however what is clear is that her focus seems to have been on process and materials and that she thought quite hard about the relationships between them. The fibre artists working around that time (1960s) also seem to have been focusing on structure and how this inter-related with materials, often on a very large scale.

So in a very small way I have quite enjoyed these exercises and got unusual results out of it. My husband joked that my ‘shield’ sample was a lacrosse racket, and that is the type of response you might expect from an untraditional piece, there is a search for something familiar in the unfamiliar; but I think the robust edges of that piece in contrast to the finer threads and small areas of woven patches worked quite well in the end.

The other grid piece is developing well. It is difficult to decide at what angle it will eventually look its best. It is being woven from various sides, and you get used to looking at it from one side more than another during making. As I mentioned in a different area, I enjoy natural materials, they have a great feel in the hand, I understand more about how they respond to processes (weaving, knotting, hanging, draping and so on), and they work well with wooden frames, and independent free-standing-hanging pieces such as the low relief samples in this project.

Hard materials such as thicker linens and sisal can be used in bigger pieces. There is much potential in these materials and they can be wrapped or hung with finer more shiny materials to create interest. If there is one think I find difficult in working in this sort of free and spontaneously constructive way it is getting a feel for when something is finished. I mean really finished, not almost, or overly finished and I am not sure when that point of balance comes. I prefer to work on something until I tire of it.  With that statement I don’t mean getting bored with it, but more working on it until there is a sense of exhausting a certain stage and then putting it somewhere where it can be looked at over time until a new dimension becomes obvious and needs to be fulfilled.

How accurate were you in matching all the colours in your postcard: with paints?

I liked the colour matching exercise. Richter’s paintings are complex and have many, many different colours in them in different proportions, but I had a go, and found my final analyses useful. I used gouache and other water based media. Some of these mixes came out well, and overall I think gouache was probably the better media.

with yarns/other material?

In any case there were strong colour themes in both pictures, green in one, blue in the other. I have quite a large yarn collection so could identify some good likenesses to the colours in the pictures. The charity shop is always a good source for embroidery yarns and crewel wools, and these wools come in all manner of colours, and I have collected a fair few bundles for weaving. What is equally important I guess is the quality of the yarn, alongside the colour, as a shiny, smooth yarn casts light differently from a matt one. This is important in textile design where the characteristics of the materials is one of the key factors I how the work will look depending on the techniques of making.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Tex 1 Assignment 4 - Research point – the textile artist

This exercise asks for a consideration of the textile artist in comparison to designers and craftspeople; it then goes on to look at a couple of textile artists whose work we admire or find inspiring.

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