CONTEMPORARY TEXTILES: THE FABRIC OF FINE ART
Nadine K. Monem (ed.) (London; Black Dog Publishing Ltd.) 2008
This book is presented as "a comprehensive introduction to textile art", the selected artists "producing
some of the most important, inspiring and evocative work being done today" (Monem; 2008 p.6). It features work by sixty artists (including collaborations) whose practice incorporates textile
media, with good-quality illustrations and a short text representing each contributor. Nearly half the artists featured are based in the U.S. and a number in the U.K.; fourteen countries are
represented overall. The publication encompasses internationally famous figures and relative newcomers, and features a wide range of work, from the embroidery of Tilleke Schwarz and the sculpture
of Mike Kelley, to the collages of Rachel Coleman and the installations of Yinka Shonibare.
In contemporary textile publishing, numerous high-quality exhibition catalogues and well-illustrated books are available, profiling individuals and groups of selected textile artists, designers and makers. This volume attempts a wide-ranging contemporary survey of the contested territory where 'textiles as art practice' meets 'fine art'. It is an ambitious project. Sarat Maharaj has theorised the position of textiles as being "an undecidable - as Derrida puts it, something that seems to belong to one genre but overshoots its border and seems no less at home in another."(Maharaj; 2001 p.7) Arguably a high level of expert scholarship and dedication would be required to cover this field fully, containing as it does the problematic nexus between art, design and craft. 'Contemporary Textiles: The Fabric of Fine Art' should be commended for attempting the task.
Artists have long been attracted to textile media, by their potential as carriers of multiple meanings. Cloth is "inscribed within a range of humanist and universalist discourses as a container for full human expression."(Jefferies: 1995 p.164). Many works included in this book relate to the body, clothing, identity, and sexuality. Notions of safety, comfort, shelter and the domestic are interrogated. There is frequent use of collage and bricolage, creating the disjunctions that are a classic strategy in textile practice. Among the artists represented, Kent Henricksen makes silk-screened Rococo wallpaper patterns, with delicate figures wearing embroidered gimp-masks and balaclavas engaging in acts of violence and punishment. Silja Puranen applies digitally-manipulated images of herself, in roles associated with the glamour and grotesquery of the circus, to 'found' domestic textiles. Satoru Aoyama stitches densely-machined representations of his sewing machine and studio space which are wittily self-referential and quietly powerful.
The book is prefaced by two introductory essays, by Bradley Quinn, author of 'Textile Designers at the Cutting Edge' and 'Techno Fashion', and by Janis Jefferies, Professor of Visual Arts in the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths, and Director of the Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles. There is also a foreword by artist Jann Haworth. In his essay Quinn gives a concise history of modern art's conjunctions with textile practice, interspersed with numerous brief descriptions of contemporary artists' work. The sheer numbers can make it difficult to follow his argument, but they create a useful context. The accompanying images elucidate the text, including some photographs of installations and exhibitions, which would have also been useful in the main body of the book. In 'Contemporary Textiles: The Art Fabric' Janis Jefferies provides a historic, academic and personal overview of some of the key texts and movements in textile art. She introduces Mildred Constantine & Jack Lenor Larsen's 'Beyond Craft: The Art Fabric' and 'The Art Fabric: Mainstream'. She profiles the Pattern and Decoration Movement, feminist discourses, and several other strands of related practice, charting rehabilitation of the idea of the decorative after its Modernist banishment by Clement Greenberg. She also examines the present use and future potential of digital media. Her essay includes useful references to many key texts, including a number of her own publications.
'Contemporary Textiles: The Fabric of Fine Art' functions well as an introduction to textiles in art practice. It represents itself as authoritative, profiling "the most cutting edge textile work emerging from the contemporary art world today"(Monem; 2008 p.6). However, beyond the range of the introductory essays, it has several weaknesses. It is divided into sections, entitled 'Drawings', 'Paintings, 'Sculptures' and 'Spaces', categories which seem outmoded. Some of the distinctions, particularly between work shown as 'Drawing' or 'Painting', appear arbitrary. The methodology that produced the book is unclear. Apparently artists applied to be included, but there is no indication through what channels. Tracey Emin is featured, but Sarah Lucas, Cathy de Monchaux, Shelly Goldsmith, and Maxine Bristow are not. Nor is Grayson Perry, whose recent explorations in embroidery and digital tapestry illuminate new aspects of his practice. Magdalena Abakanowicz, Jann Haworth, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are present, but other representatives of the 20th-century canon are not.
The volume lacks a unifying editorial thrust. Apparently seven writers produced the texts on individual artists, and they tend to be repetitious, with no argument building throughout the book. Academic language sometimes seems to veil a lack of specialist knowledge, and apparently the texts aren't intended to relate specifically to the images, which can be confusing. There is some poor editing; in Janis Jefferies' essay a quote from Clement Greenberg is rendered incomprehensible by the loss of two words, making a dense text more difficult to understand.
Work utilizing fabric and stitched media predominates in the book. In spite of several references to weaving in the introductory material, with the exception of Lia Cook, the worldwide practice of tapestry and related media is not represented, even though work by artists such as Marcel Marois, Jane Kidd and Peter Horn would have demonstrated a suitable level of conceptual rigour for inclusion.
The selection is arguably some distance from the 'cutting edge', with little coverage of digital work or conceptual practices. For example, although the book is a U.K. production, there is no apparent awareness of the 'Arttextiles' exhibitions generated by Bury St. Edmunds Art Gallery from 1996 to 2004. These were rigorously selected to present a contemporary view of art practice associated with textiles. 'Arttextiles3' included a number of digital and conceptual works, such as Farhad Ahrarnia's "Mr. Singer", a screen-based work referring to trade and imperialism in the context of the Singer sewing machine, and interventions such as Andrea Stokes' 'Butter Net 2002', where she screen-printed a net curtain onto a gallery window with butter, evoking a sense of suffocating and fragile respectability.
This book does not present a well-constructed critical argument for textiles "fast becom(ing) the fabric of fine art"(Monem; 2008 p.6) However, it offers a worthwhile introduction to the general subject. Jann Haworth points out in the foreword that the struggle to incorporate textiles into the expanded field of fine art has been going on since the 1960's. As Pennina Barnett once wrote, "Textile Art and Fibre Art are 'unfinished closures'…They don't sound 'right'". (Barnett; 1995 p.82) If this book contributes to moving such a longstanding discourse forward, then it is to be welcomed. However, to quote Polly Binns from a previous review in this journal, "there is still ground to cover and further territories to explore" (Binns; 2005 p.324).
Barnett, Pennina 1995. 'afterthoughts on curating "The Subversive Stitch"', pp76-86, Deepwell, Katy (ed.) New Feminist Art Criticism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Binns, Polly 2005. Exhibition Review: 'The arttextiles Project:An Ongoing Concern', pp319-325, Textile: The Journal of Cloth & Culture, Volume 3 Issue 3. Oxford: Berg.
Jefferies, Janis 1995. 'Text and textiles: weaving across the borderlines', pp164-173, Deepwell, Katy (ed.). New Feminist Art Criticism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Maharaj, Sarat 2001. 'Textile Art - Who Are You?' pp7-10, Jefferies, Janis (ed.). Reinventing Textiles vol.2: Gender and Identity. Winchester: Telos.
Monem, Nadine (ed.). 2008. 'note from the editor', p6, Contemporary Textiles: The Fabric of Fine Art. London: Black Dog.