my textile career from 1975
Just listened to Phil Manzanera’s song Walking Through Heaven’s Door from his album K-Scope. It’s clearly and obviously a song about heroin use, something I have no time for, as my personal health requires frequent blood tests; that’s enough syringe use for me.
See what I mean? But Manzanera is one one the best guitarist of our recent pop culture. Having played Tim Buckley’s & Chris Isaak’s music (the latter is fortunately not suicidal or drug addled), one can’t help but feel that the industry must pre-dispose its inhabitants to reality-altering behaviour. In the 1980’s an astrologer casting my horoscope, declared that I should give up weaving tapestry & turn to the music industry. The best interpretation I can give of my career to date, is that my work at the loom has been a type of guitar work. It’s a rectangular instrument, the loom, and your fingers twang the warps as you introduce the coloured wefts. Harmonious themes are the preoccupation of each piece. The completion of each work makes for an epiphany of sorts, as any artist will admit. walking through heaven’s door.
Try to eat some fetid meat Yours tastes just fine, same as mine If you can pay, it happens here Do what you say, will be tonight's career While guarantee hot company The red light flickers in their faces Roll up your sleeve, pass it round It's what you seek, dope in town Feels just fine to be with you Your place or mine, I'll show you what to do And in the nights, you'll come on through Walking through heaven's door. Walking through heaven's door.
A beautiful friend of mine is currently travelling in India, visiting animal rescue shelters; he, unlike the rest of us, lives a consistent life. He lives with dogs he has rescued, he is vegetarian.
I want to explore some ideas that inform the work under my fingertips as we speak.I’m calling the concept I-Hebdo-Conic. It is about the three Abrahamic religions and how each has experienced an intense phase of iconoclasm, of smashing idolatrous images: firstly Moses and the Golden Calf; next, Christianity in Constantinople when all the icons were destroyed; later with Cromwell and Anglicanism & its intense mistrust of the sado-masochistic imagery of catholic churches; finally what happened in Paris with the publishing of offensive cartoons.
I was raised a catholic and quickly rejected the ritual games that the bad-gay, Vatican cardinals in frocks perform. The Vatican only recently amended its teaching on the treatment of animals; previously humans owned animals and could manage them any which way; after the amendment, humans were enjoined to behave compassionately. Although I still eat meat, I recognise that killing animals compassionately is a contradiction, necessary for civilized carnivores. I also acknowledge what happens in my name, as a result of my diet choice. The Tibetans had a belief that eating meat was okay because we humans were also subject to the vagaries of nature. We eat fish & chips, the fish or flake being shark; but then we go surfing & are potentially mauled by a shark.
I live in a beautiful country originally inhabited by a people whose song lines go back to ancient times. Idiotic scientists have for a long time nurtured a concept about so-called primitive people that their spiritual beliefs are “animistic”, that in this tree lives a god or powerful spirit, likewise in that cloud, or storm, or earthquake. Lately, other academics have given such people the benefit of the doubt that their belief structure actually is unified; that, while a particular family might have a totemic link to this flower and animal, bird and plant, the entire community are unified by an underlying spiritual principle.
We westerners flatter ourselves that our civilisation has advanced; we are in imminent danger of destroying this beautiful planet our home, through a neurotic, schizophrenic greed for profits and possessions. This is not an advanced cultural position, by any means.
My current use of assemblage consists of pieces of woven tapestry alongside fields of sewn buttons and/or objects. Their combination allows the viewer to re-define both types of media. In doing this however, it is nothing new. Outside of Australia, the most interesting example, apart from arte povera, where textiles were used alongside pieces of sculpture, would be the work of Rauschenberg. His piece, entitled Bed, 1955, now in MOMA, NY, began with a quilt on which he began to paint, for lack of regular canvas, he later explained. Having completed this stage of the project, he added a pillow and similarly daubed paint onto that.
In Australia the painter Brett Whiteley began to make holes in his paintings of birds and vegetation and in these secret recesses would place a bird’s nest or other objects (pebbles). Several textile artists in Australia, Kay Lawrence and Diana Wood Conroy, had begun their artistic careers as painters and progressed to weaving tapestries. Conroy produced several works that reflected on her academic work as an archaeologist in Turkey and Cyprus, whereby a painted field would contain a fragment of woven tapestry.
The effect of woven alongside painted reinforces the historical value of tapestry as elite and privileged against the painted earth, scrabbled through. heaped and scraped away. The woven image insists on intense, close scrutiny. Its mode of production, the weaver’s back and forth motion parallels the scanning process that doubtless the human eye undertakes at an imperceptible speed.
Likewise, my juxtaposition of tapestry and buttons requires the viewer to evaluate the qualities of a minutely woven image alongside a complex sculptural field of buttons, sometimes patterned, at other times hectically chaotic.
Two bronze sculptures are on loan from a private collection to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The university’s art historians have decided that they are in fact by the hand of Michelangelo.
They are desk sizes pieces, works an individual might relish at leisure, or in moments of contemplation. At first the beasts on which the heroic figures ride seem placid or indifferent. But like Josephine Baker in Paris, one might have wondered at which end of the equation strode the wild animal. Criticising the static quality of the beasts is rather gratuitous; the coupling of heroic figure & untameable beast is a metaphysical construct at best. In reality, such beasts would not have accepted their rider; the situation would have been a struggle to the death.
Johnathan Jones’s excellent essay describes the wildness as a late Renaissance conjecture about the newly discovered colonies, the brave new worlds.
Michelangelo was also the inventor of the next art movement: Mannerism, that produced such visual greats as Pontormo and El Greco, both, like Michelangelo, gay. The twisting, writhing flesh of the bodies might well signify the unease of the new age, or a new sloughing off of old shackles. We can invoke Carl Gustav Jung’s dream imagery of the animal as signifying primal energy, at which point again, it might be necessary to re-examine the placid beast providing the base for the writhing human energies, the protest, the assertion of heroic male energies. Male energies & excitement are clearly the mots du jour; they seem to be meant as desk pieces, to be fondled, ogled, wanking material. All in all, a disco couple on the dance floor, Josephine.
In a textile exhibition Diana Wood Conroy, tapestry weaver, academic at the University of Wollongong and archaeologist in Greece and Turkey, exhibited a work that combined a tapestry fragment against a field of painted canvas. Her intention was to evoke the quality of fragments found in a “dig”. Her use of several media parallel other artists also combining woven tapestry with other materials. Most famous, and totally influential for me, was the US textile artist, Jon Eric Riis, whose piece Eye Con consisted of a trapeze bar upon which was folded a piece of leather in human shape, entirely covered in seed pearls which flowed concentrically around panels of woven tapestry of a human eye. Later works of his, such as Icarus, consisted of a large central image, to which was added smaller pieces such as feathers woven as tapestry and individually added.
Both artists were part of a recent debate about textile and ornament. For me however, they go beyond that to a transgressive state where the qualities of woven tapestry are interrogated by a process of confrontation. Tapestry weavers today, whether working in the collaborative workshop system, or alone in their own studios, are aware of the need for the quality and characteristics of woven tapestry to be satisfactorily defined. However, what is not clear is how this is to take place. The curator of the Chuck Close exhibition at the MCA, Sydney, confused jacquard weaving with woven tapestry. The UK transsexual artist Greyson Perry also designed jacquard works, which could more validly be called tapestries because of their design and reference to traditional tapestries. Also, textile artists embroidering onto canvas are calling their works tapestries; the ambiguity is historical but involves whether the completed object or the process is being referenced.
For me, combining tapestry fragments within a field of buttons generates a dialogue about their respective materiality. The buttons form a mosaic, and when chosen for their translucence, create an extra dimension; meanwhile, the tapestry fragments are read not as painted surface nor as functional fabric. Especially, where they represent an entity or portrait, the process of construction comes into play: tapestry is woven backwards and forwards, a scanning not unlike that of computer imagery, and equally unreal. Perhaps also, that axiom of painting is activated: to accentuate a colour, place it next to a darker shade.
I feel that my contemporaries and colleagues are in the process of re-branding their product, an exciting historical moment.
Apollo in Gaza, buttons, woven tapestry inserts, 110 cms H X 100 cms W. Design figure drawing by Rod Byatt.
You are standing in the gallery that shows your work. Someone comes up & asks: “How long did this take?” In this case, it was more than a year, but really, without the absences about 9 months, a period of human gestation. On May 11, last year, I had an accident & was hospitalised. As the work in its final stages required a frame of 110 x 100 cms to be moved around I had to wait until I was able. These are my physical excuses; they say in an artist’s work are embedded all the physical accidents of its making. For instance, I often bleed onto my works, why, why? The work itself began with 4 small pieces: three versions of the smurf, becoming cleverer each time, until the last version had learned to levitate. Also I had made a head only version of the Apollo on a small frame. It consciously followed the woven version of the Piraeus Apollo I’d woven a few years ago.
As for the background: a sculpture of Apollo had been dredged up in a Palestinian fisherman’s net off the coast near Gaza. It was photographed on the floor of the man’s cottage, on a smurf quilt. From the way the right hand is raised, the sculpture was intended for a temple, and showed the god in the act of endowing his followers with gifts. My only quarrel with Apollo is that all his boyfriends come to a bad end, after which, he must transform them into constellations. As for Gaza, there is a quote from John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, “Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves” which rather sums up the fate of destitute Palestinian refugees.
As I launched myself into the task of completing a metre square image, I saw the need to use the 3 tapestry panels to evoke the qualities of textile, the quilt upon which the copper sculpture was lying; buttons meanwhile supplying the sculptural qualities. Currently, within the tapestry community a debate is raging about the validity of small pieces of woven tapestry. In a workshop where huge images are woven, the loom is colossal, the task of warping it immense; by contrast, a small piece can only suggest a fabric sample for a doubting client. In fact, one individual who directed a known atelier, quoted with relish the French habit of referring to such pieces as “dish cloths”, disposable fabric to mop up a spill. To my mind, it is curious that the visual properties of large tapestries are interlocked with those of architecture. The vertical end panels resemble ornately carved columns. Tapestries have always been prized; after all, their completion would have required the skills of several highly trained individuals. Since the Italian Renaissance tapestry and painting were considered sister art forms. In Holland for instance, they are prized, since interiors are decked in woven pieces, a remnant of its colonial history.
However, I do not have the patience or the requisite artistic method to sit alongside other weavers collaborating in a large work. I have always been a solitary artist, not from pride or anti-social tendencies; my method has always been one of listening to the inner voice. I wrote a blog about the unexpectedness of this process; yes, many artist/ authors talk about it. I would sit at my workplace sorting my buttons, or something equally innocuous; suddenly, something would suggest itself. It would be, as David Bowie sings, something completely “out of the BLUE”.
At some point in the above process, an idea came to me to quantify the stellar nature of the relationship between Apollo & smurfs. I thought of NASA’s Apollo program; so the work needed a signpost. I had remarked (being a poet of several years practise) the rhyme between Gaza & Nasa. As the work progressed, it needed to be a sign with homemade qualities, with bullet holes, being in a war zone.
Almost at the point of completion, I realised the need to complete a vertical line near the top of the signage. It would then add to the growing sense of geometrical structures within the work. Already, together with the textile & pop resonances of the smurf quilt, I felt the work needed some geometric irregularities, which I decided to systematise as the Japanese textile form of “boro”, or indigo patchwork repair. It is highly prized and yet paradoxical; mended textile that is valuable. The work oscillates between high art and industrial image, between an impersonal judge tiny guys, the common man.
While weaving textile images especially, but even more so with buttons, I became aware how difficult it was to outline the forms adequately. In tapestry it is not possible to retrospectively improve the outlining, thus, perhaps, the buttons for eyes of the lower 2 smurfs. However, complexity is not always weakness or clutter; I had to constantly reassure myself that the eyes were clearly defined; the other larger buttons around the brow acted mythically like the many breasts of Diana of Ephesus, as the multiple organs of omniscience. Outlining became a preoccupation with the hand, also its interplay with light, as the hand bestowing justice or blessing is raised in a gesture of power. Other areas, such as the wedge of dark between waist and arm needed to be mde distinct.
I feel that this work has climbed to a level of theatre: Gustav Moreau & the decadence of the symbolists came to mind. The smurfs form a curve of separate-ness around the central image. David Wojarowicz did this with small inserts clustered around his larger photographic images, filled with the menace of Aids. Finally the bottom inch of the work forms a human horizon filled with the green of vegetable growth, the blood of battlefields, and fallen toy soldiers. There are many associations for my border motif of the ancestor eye embedded within a metal buckle: framed? imprisoned?
Lastly, I would like to add, a great deal of sorrow & dislocation has happened in this part of the world because people have been unwilling to compromise & find a necessary solution. I do not ally myself with any group. The world, however, needs the issue to be resolved.
Have nearly completed my current project; my pattern these nights is to be planning the next work at 4 am as the birdcalls start up. Today, fetching the new year’s groceries from Woolies across the Cook’s river, I found myself meditating on the mangroves the council is replanting along its banks. The reflections in the water make for intricate blue/green/brown patterns; I notice that the bank of the river is the border of the Cadigal Wangal territory. When Cook’s ships sailed into the river, Banks & Greville set off to explore the area. They were so impressed, children of the enlightenment that they were, they gave the valley a name from Greek mythology, the pleasant land below Mt Olympus.
But, this afternoon, having set to work, I find the buttons I use are the colours I observed on my morning’s walk, and of the project I’m designing. What concerns me is whether the energy of the future project is feeding into the work in hand. Tho, energy is never wasted, it generates on an ongoing basis; all art is growth.
‘Tis the season to be silly. So, I’m re-reading Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. At first I wanted to remark on Lord Peter’s older brother giving him a wedding present of all the tapestries from one single room in the entailed ducal household. How many tapestries would such a building contain. Do we have a catalogue of the national estate of tapestries? Then, Lord Peter’s mother gives the couple a set of tapestried chairs as her present; would they have been embroidered canvas-work?
Instead, I reached page 258, where, during breakfast, Lord Peter says: “I have noticed that what’s right in art is usually right in practice. In fact, nature is a confirmed plagiarist of art, as somebody has observed”. That somebody would have to have been Oscar Wilde, in paradoxical mood.
That goes a long way to explain why following the waves of impressionism & expressionism, we now come to describe reality as existential, surreal, concrete, abstract, absurd, primitive & chaotic.
A younger generation can be overheard to describe everything as surreal. The next often-used descriptor is “awesome” which is probably an anglification of central European “magic realism”. Chaos theory is probably the reason for climate change being so often discussed.
Meanwhile, performance art is popular; is it an explanation for Big Bro & all the other live TV cooking, decorating, living shows?
Richard Wolheim in his book “Art & its Objects”,Penguin 1968, quotes da Vinci who advises the visual artist to study the blemishes on walls, and to see therein great battles & dramas. Da Vinci’s own art practice was to sit meditating on the work in progress, to sometimes make an adjustment here and there, but often just to study intently the progress of the work.
Oriental aesthetic theory often makes use of the phrase “beginner’s mind”. My version of the phrase describes a phenomenon that happens often: you walk into the work area; set out the materials and the work in progress, suddenly an idea suggests itself, as David Bowie used to sing, OUT OF THE BLUE. How could such an idea have been generated, totally unexpectedly? But, clearly, it summarizes all that has gone before, building on that and taking things forward.
In other words, you empty your mind, taking away from it any constricting purpose & allow it to produce some insight that is at first unexpected, but probably the result of many things that have gone before.
Again today, elements of the work in progress have suggested further treatment, until the steps taken have been totally into the dark.
Vanessa Bell & Duncan Grant were painters, part of the Bloomsbury set. He was bisexual & fathered Angelica. Vanessa had a son Quentin by another man.
Last night’s Antiques Roadshow aired the collection by a family, who acquired an abstract by Angelica, then some years later a painted ceramic plate by Quentin. The valuer thought the plate more valuable than the painting. I thought the opposite; I also thought the stereotypical roles had been reversed. Wiki unfortunately was of no assistance with more of her oeuvre. It seemed more preoccupied with a voyeuristic flood of society photos of the group.
As a visual artist, others who have gone before add to one’s vocabulary. For me the most interesting artists are two post Impressionist Slovenian artists who have the most intense conflagration of colour I have seen, Jakopic & Grohar, the Bay Area Figuratives, namely David Park & Paul Wonner, the COBRA movement & in the UK, Keith Vaughan. Angelica Bell’s painting fit in nicely with them. Although the art scene favours ceramic work currently, her brother’s work doesn’t move me as much.