my textile career from 1975
The work is based on a dream I had a while ago: I was day dreaming over a stream, looking into its depths, suddenly things sprang into focus and I could see the pebbles of the underwater river bed, gleaming. I woke and wanted to make sketches, there and then, some sort of plein air activity. The pleasure was the same as what I achieved when I placed two colours together that really complemented each other.
I know that I have woven a number of these miniature landscapes and underwater images lately. I think my involvement in the recent Tamworth Textile Triennial and seeing Cresside Collette’s series of plein air landscapes was very influential.
This is part 2 of my portrait of Matthew Mitcham, a view of gay sportsmen and their struggles with the machismo of an industry that forces most gay sportsmen to hide their sexuality; those brave enough to disclose it endure the slings and arrows. I intend to unify both images with the use of textured objects: buttons, medals to emphasise Matthew’s achievement of winning an Olympic gold medal.
Superflat is a postmodern term influenced by Takashi Murakami.
My version began when I was studying T. S. Eliot’s poetry in the 1970’s. The prevailing tone was flat, bitter, hollow; I admit I was influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas and Eliot, and a lecturer borrowed some of my work and constructed some mocking pastiches in the style of “the black swan of trespass”. I had been writing poetry since mid high school. I showed some of my work to a Slovenian friend; surprisingly, he saw them as “supple, spiritual and romantic”. Admittedly, Europe had been practising magic realism for some time, as an antidote to post WW2 malaise. But it struck me that perhaps my personal vision was a multi-cultural one; at a teachers’ camp I watched a primary teacher demonstrate weaving; immediately this accorded with things from my past: oriental rugs and folk embroideries.
I began weaving tapestry; it satisfied a tactile need, also an impulse to create portraits. While I was weaving these tapestries I was also collecting small objects, fetishes really, some covered in beads. It was not a large leap to creating images wholly from buttons: my first was of two miners in a shower. At various places on the picture plane the flatness became pyramidal towers of buttons. From there, I progressed to offsetting the flatness of woven tapestry with button assemblage and object clusters. Tapestry I consider as flat as photography or painting: its process is so demanding, its texture is necessarily disciplined and subdued. Against such discipline, practically class warfare, unclassified assemblage is chaos itself.
Homosexuality is an important component of Australian male sport, as the cynical measure of the masculinity of participants. David Pocock’s recent campaign against homophobia and the churlish reactions of players to a rugby referee “outing” himself are just such indicators. My intention is to construct a network of events that connote machismo, while simultaneously celebrating those gay sportsmen, unable to live openly and honestly, as epitaphs and shrines to the closeted. My particular medium of woven tapestry reflects the strict enforcement of rules, the hierarchies of ability and achievement as well as cavalier subversion by the players.
The concept of hierarchy as I see it, is something I need to develop further.It is based in the historical parity woven tapestry originally had with painting during the Renaissance, and earlier, with Roman mosaic. As such it lends itself to interesting inclusion with found objects, such as buttons, in my work, to create interesting assemblage. Rauschenberg is a recent practitioner; although in his case, the contrasting base media were painting, prints and photography.
Back in the 1970’s I created several tapestries of sport images, AFL and soccer, inspired by the energy in motion of the players. As my political consciousness grew, signified in these weeks when American cities celebrate LGBTIQ Pride. and ritualise our visibility, I realised the heroic struggle of individuals who excelled in their individual areas but opted to complicate their lives by coming out of the closet and announcing their sexual preference. Clearly, it was hardest for team players like Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas. In Australia diver Matthew Mitcham, awarded a gold Olympic medal, is also my hero. I chose to weave an image of his bruised foot, endpoint of his arc in flight, evidence of his valiant efforts to excel.
People would be familiar with the monumental novel(s) by Marcel Proust, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. In a novel by Picano, two office workers discuss the lack of meaningful activity; one of them says: I’m Reading Proust, I taught myself French to read it in the original. Proust’s haunting image of the pastry from his childhood parallels the work of Freud or Jung in that area.
In completing my Master of Design (Hons) at COFA, the College of Fine Arts, on the subject of my mother’s background in what is now Slovenia then her refugee status post World War 2, her being sent to Australia on an Italian ship organised by the International Refugee Organisation I examined the photos that survived to record those experiences. Her IRO ID photo was reworked as a button collage.
She and my father met in the centralised camp for refugees of that time at Bathurst; from there they were moved by rail to Cowra for a two year enforced stay during which time I was born. All refugees were housed in wooden army style huts. Among my mother’s photos was the following tiny image from a box brownie, of incredible clarity.
The fact that strikes me is that my first visual experiences seen between the slats of a baby bed, of an industrial wall hanging. It looks machine woven, though it has some Art Deco busyness of detail and zig-zaggery. I have toyed all week with the project of writing up this early textile influence, but am baulked by the people who are clearly French-literate and would probably look unfavourably at an attempt to create a Proustian moment.
But was I influenced my this early encounter with textile?
Now, a re-uniting of the Le Corbusier designed tapestry commissioned by the architect Joern Utzon with its originally destined site has come about.
I must complain, as a tapestry weaver, that no mention has been made of the actual weaver of the work. But that is the nature of the trade.
The work itself, black red and white with a triangle of yellow is exciting; it has a touch of the art brut about it. I look forward to seeing it up close, to scrutinize those lines, always a challenge for the weaver. What I find exciting was that Le Corbusier’s work generally had an abstracted, certainly non-representational quality to it; here, however, elements of the landscape intrude. I am reminded of the later paintings of Brett Whiteley. The yellow triangle is the sail of a boat negotiating the water, there apparently are also marks indicating the tram depot that was located on the peninsula.
It is an important cultural moment that Utzon’s vision has been further clarified. As well, the city of Sydney gets to celebrate woven tapestry in a magnificently public art space.
We live in Australia, even if we are born here, as guests, with only an understanding of the rhythm of landscape, at one remove as it were. We can get others, the indigenous nation of this continent, to translate their experience of land and nature.
In a sense, that leaves the true colonial experience as one of dispossession: we own but we do not understand. In the country where most Australians came from, Britain, its great mystic poet William Blake described the flow of the land as “the eyeball rolling changes all”. Gerard Manley Hopkins created an entire vocabulary around concepts such as “inscape” and “instress”. Both terms were ways the poet was able to articulate his mystic vision of the unity of all creation, admittedly within a framework of christian theology.
FLOW is something I have sought to cultivate from the beginning of my career, however it is a phenomenon that is intractable and elusive. Working backwards is last night’s effort. It was woven over 3 days on my favourite, tiny loom; the work is 5 in H X 6 in W. The warps, 8 pi, are cotton; the wefts are wool, cotton, linen and synthetic.
But the significant element is its beginning. Earlier this week I had a series of dreams: the last was like a retelling of the Conference of the Birds, except that the birds, all different, walked in procession, the last was a rooster whose feathers were green tartan. Earlier, I had a dream about looking into the depths of a river: the weeds and murky bits were swirling, then suddenly the pebbles revealed themselves and their previously muddy colours clarified and became luminous. I wanted to capture that process of the transformation of landscape, perhaps a Brigadoon type moment, I ken not.
A previous example of “flow” as applies to portraiture is this work; however, its background relates to the work I have illustrated in this chapter; the shapes simultaneously suggest electricity, exuberant growth, land, water and sky.
In this work I wanted to abandon any need for distinctness of form; the background was a mass of blurs: green for leaf in front of blue sky, purple and brown for rock. Yes, the rock was firmly articulated; it is a fossil discovered recently in Africa that proves that we have been alive there 600,000 years earlier that we previously thought.
Old Rock, 26 cms H X 24 cms W, 8 pi, cotton warp, wool, cotton, linen synthetic wefts.
Entartete Kunst, you can taste it in this second floor apartment, where Gustav Klimt, Schoenberg and Sigmund Freud visited. How embaressing that the art most desired by the Nazi looters was a sort of chocolate box portraiture; anyway, that’s what was filched from the Bauer walls to decorate Hitler’s mountain retreat.
Yes, I’ve just seen the movie Woman in Gold, and after enjoying Helen Mirren’s performance in The Queen I can say that this role is no letdown either. Curious if her US lawyer was descended from the 12 tone composer Schoenberg; if it is a historical fact the celestial orbs collided graciously. Klimt’s work references Byzantine icons in the profuse loading of the surface with gold leaf. It takes one of the children in the family to ask why so much gold. The rich and bizarre material is combined with abstracted patterning and an emotional gesture from the sitter that evokes the anguish of the time, the zukunft, as her father reminds her, best to live in the present.
Although I am not familiar with Schoenberg’s 12 tone music, it seems an apt co-relative for Klimt’s austere experimentation.
Bearing in mind my previous chapter about textile and landscape and Jackson Pollock’s mark making, I read a review about US textile artist Mike Kelley which described the “male artist as a stereotypical female”, in June Wayne’s words, “innately emotional, instinctual, irrational and strange, possessed by mysterious forces of creation”, Cary Levine.
Bowling For Columbine, a doco by Michael Moore, explores the causes of violence in US society. I think it unfair to limit the presence of thuggish masculinity to that culture alone; Australia, is also known for its brutish sports, its manifestations of cavalier machismo.
As far back as the the early 1970’s a sociologist was exploring the ways that sexism leaches into society. Boys were observed in playschool as being individualistic and masculinised; there was a perceived need to explore further. The two archetypal rituals were playing with guns for boys and the tea ceremony for girls. It was noted that boys preferred their guns metallic, girls liked floral patterned cups. But if the order of things was reversed. if guns were decorated with floral motifs girls consented to play with them, likewise if the cups were spiky shaped and painted in harsh metallic colours boys found them acceptable.
My favourite character in the sitcom Friends is Matthew Perry’s Chandler; his name is given to one of Phoebe’s daughters; “Chandler is a girl”, “That’s a flashback from my kindergarten” says Chandler. Likewise in my case; I wanted to make pretty dolls’ house furniture from match boxes covered in gift wrapping paper, but I was warned off with a sermon about gender roles.
Given the shapes in my recent tapestry, one wonders, has there been a bit of gender translation resulting in accumulations of butch shapes?