my textile career from 1975
One of my fave Patrick White’s novels is the Vivisector, not least because it depicts the bitchy dinner parties of Sydney’s eastern suburbs arts community.
There are numerous meditations on the process of painting, a method of representation someone once described as a series of accidents, or was about AFL?
Tapestry weavers talk about that crucial moment when what the artist has achieved on the loom JUST LOOKS WRONG. What do you do then? Abandon the project? Cut out the offending wefts? It’s heart-wrenching.
Docos about UK painter Francis Bacon noted that his method was to destroy works that ALMOST achieved what he wanted, but never quite got there. Friends who had watched the build up towards a ferociously intense image would return to his hovel, next day, horrified to find that yesterday’s work had been scraped away. One wonders how many canvases which survived were things Bacon was too dis-spirited even to destroy, that they survived out of apathy?
Sydney has a dubious backstory of its artists having their rubbish bins raided for artwork the painter discarded out of disgust. The auction catalogues bear witness to this phenomenon. A work with impeccable provenance will be listed with the artist’s full name, which is abbreviated in direct proportion to doubt as to the work’s origin, until only the artist’s initials are quoted; the most dubious offerings, for instance the garbage bin pieces, are listed as Attrib.
Trust those pesky Scandinavians to do this. A Tom of Finland stamp with the command: LICK ME. It’s instructional, pleasure & function combined.
& if my dubious use/ possible invention of instructional is to be questioned, let’s put it on the record: during reporting at the NSW ICAC, instead of “donor” an eager young reporter created “donator”. It’s Marvel zine language.
Recently. a Public Broadcaster program commented on the increasingly religious content of cosmic superhero comic media, cosplay & so forth. The outward forms may have changed with a few generations, but I grew up with Superman & Batman comics. I also felt the benefit of re-interpreting some of the mythic dimensions of the religion I was raised in, namely eastern European Catholicism.
I went travelling & experienced the sites of many cosmic events: Delos, for instance, an island that seemed particularly involved in the veneration of Apollo, with its large open reception/celebration area, decorated with sculptures of winged phalloi/birds; the Parthenon in Athens, then Cairo & Luxor. There were the great museum collections: Athens, Cairo, Rome, London.
Having transmuted traditional spiritual experiences into the multi-cultural ones of hippy-dom, I became conversant with yin/yang, the principle that all creatures/experiences own a trace of their opposite. Having endured the polarity explored in literature of Apollo/Dionysus, I also found solace in the archaeological acecdote: that the temples devoted to the worship of these very different deities would be inhabited by both; in other words, one god would go wandering, and his opposite number would take up residence, so as not to disappoint the worshippers.
But like any other lustful young man, I keenly looked out for signs that my fave super heroes took note of my existence & my special needs. I relished the fact that at the last supper, Jesus allowed his favourite disciple John (the beloved) to rest his head against the Master’s torso, BLISS.
Buddha had a similarly favoured follower. Meanwhile, Krishna (HARE) looked kindly on his sub cult of followers; (he was known as “the flute player). Their museum relics exuded such strong traces of compassion & awe: Apollo, Buddha, Krishna. One has to wonder, since statues of Apollo were found in Piraeus harbour & off the coast near Gaza, perhaps he was placed there as a way of placating the uncontrollable mysteries of the watery depths. The Balinese, for instance, consider their offshore dimension to be the home of implacable demons.
I also found copies of that personification of 1950’s existentialist angst, the Silver Surfer, kitted out in 1980’s re-interpreted, revivalist gym-silver lycra.
My superhero became a composite of all of the above; I am not that blindly devotional to ignore the limitations of each: Apollo had an unfortunate case history after all, of neglecting his lovers at some point in their involvement & allowing them to come to a bad end. Apollo, Krishna, the Buddha, Silver Surfer, MY HERO. Action, Time, Vision.
Vienna’s Ethnological Museum managed to change my perspective of the home planet in so many ways; for instance, there was a map of the Arctic ice masses from a North Pole viewpoint, which showed a possible ease of indigenous migration around the Circle, east to west, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland. It was an entirely new perspective.
The knockout textile experience was a darkened room showing a single item: floating somehow magically was a green orange red & blue Aztec feathered headdress of Quetzal feathers, believed to have belonged to Montezuma. It was the most magical spectacle, a transcendent object. I believe, since that visit in 2003, it was a challenge for my button assemblages. Even were such birds available in sufficient numbers, and exquisitely blue fairy wrens & multi-hued rainbow lorikeets do visit my garden of Australian trees & plants, who could cull such creatures? At dawn, & it’s that time right now, my street becomes a sound tapestry of bird music.
As a child raised in central Qld I helped my mom prepare poultry for cooking; we raised the chooks in the back yard. It’s a sound & a tactile experience best locked in the distant past.
A cloud of improbably exquisite, coloured feathers was however an aesthetic highpoint, at which to aim my button work; there is the overlap of shapes common to both media; since buttons are usually made of a tough material, the compensation is luminosity, perhaps unconsciously used to counterbalance their materiality: floating fields of fierce, luminescent colour are able to create portraits, situations, landscapes, transcendentally.
The Western reference points are probably the Post-Impressionists meeting Rothko.
I’ve been thinking lately about the power of the inarticulate visual statement; that it is able to draw out a response from the viewer, even from someone unacquainted with the matter in question. In the great Renaissance battle of wits between Michelangelo & Leonardo, the crafts had been the apprenticeship, drawing or design was the plan for new projects, painting the proof of mastery, but it culminated in architecture, the medium that exalted all the skills of one’s learning, that incorporated many of them : paintings on the walls, mosaic on the floors, sculptures in alcoves like that of della Robbia. This was the wordless side of the Renaissance artist. As for intellect, the inspiration & musings were imbued with sexual tension, their expression took the shape of poetry. Together, word & image proved the worth of the Renaissance artist.
Later in time, is to be found an artist of multi-dimensional prowess, living in the Balkans. Joze Plecnik was a Slovenian craftsman & architect who managed to bridge east & west, the opulence of the Ottoman empire & the formal statements of Austro-Germanic imperialism. His lived in Ljubljana the capitol of Slovenia, where I visited his home that he built from scratch, his kitchen containing an elaborately tiled heater, his study which he built himself from fragrant panels of cedar wood.
I stayed in a boarding house out of town, & daily had to pass the Olympic stadium where soccer matches were regularly held. Plecnik had built the structure, designing a series of Egyptian pillars to hold up the outer walls. Once, a soccer match between Lubljana’s green dragon team [symbol of the city] competed with Belgrade’s red coloured team; everyone was getting putridly drunk for the event, they were rowdy but amiable, no violence was discernible at all.
He built structures in Belgrade, Hungary and Vienna; most fascinating for me were the chalices and church furniture he designed, worthy of a local exhibition, on a par with his peers Frank Lloyd Wright, Antoni Gaudi & William Morris [no scoldings, I beg, if my timelines don't exactly tally]. His work contains such a strong resonance of that love of abstract pattern taken to excess, to be enjoyed in Islamic buildings; & especially in Mughal culture, my current love.
Every time I crossed the bridge in the old quarter there were the metal dragons he designed which I copied & added to a tapestry I wove during my stay in Ljubljana, a detail from El Greco’s Laocoon.
I don’t know if Plecnik wrote poetry, but his buildings & objects certainly speak in iambic pentameter. Photo: courtesy Dragica Wedam.
The 1989 movie Trust Me, starring [dark star] Adam Ant as a UK art dealer on La Brea Ave [probably got that wrong, no scoldings please] LA. His flash of inspiration is that a dead artist would sell better. The movie is unpleasant in so many ways. The young artist and the people of his age are clumsy & inexperienced, that goes without saying or criticism.
What helpfully distracted me from James Callander’s unashamed nastiness was firstly recognising the art on his walls: Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Where is Wojnarowicz these days? Then the romance develops between the artist and the receptionist to an extraordinary backdrop of yellow haze, streets bathed in a golden glow; I gather this is typically LA. Sam Brown lives above a funeral parlour, goth chic ahead of his time, but he gets clean in a Japanese bath house next door; that becomes quite amusing.
What shocked me about again watching a movie that had been a 1990’s regular for me over a herbal puff was that I was weaving sports images at that time, mostly soccer & AFL for the vigorous movement. Sam Brown’s flying putti [described as neo-baroque] seem to have been an unconscious influence for a large tapestry I wove of an angelic figure negotiating the relative celestial positions of two luminous spheres. Worth a re-visit.
What do you reckon: it even has the LA golden haze.
I would like to talk about large & small tapestry, & the differences I’ve experienced being engaged in both types of projects.
Living in Australia, I’ve visited the amazing Australian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne, which undertakes large scale commissions of woven tapestries. The workshop also runs an annual competition of miniature tapestries, called the Kate Derum Competition, which I won last year with the portrait of a carnival clown.
Each workshop tapestry is a large project. The decisions about the project are made by the person commissioning the work, the artist whose image is to be translated into fibre, and the workshop staff of artists with BA Fine Arts degrees.
I in no way want to sound judgemental about the work of other artists. We all work through unsatisfactory situations during our careers, and hopefully find situations that suit us personally. As English poet William Blake said, the eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow. There are many reasons why I found large scale tapestry weaving unsatisfactory. One of the most important for me is why I begin a new work. I may find a particular design or an idea begins to be interesting. I will draw the cartoon & warp up the loom; as my mind develops the idea, it may focus on a part of the design, which, if it cannot be woven immediately, becomes a source of frustration. Obviously, the solution is to explore drawings & sketches of that part of the work currently being woven. But the subconscious mind is often not so amenable.
I no longer feel guilty if I do not complete a lot of work at any one time; I certainly do not insist on working for long stretches; just the back & forth motion of weaving has the danger of becoming mechanical, so that the imagination is not engaged. The largest tapestry I completed was a wall-sized image of a rock pool; it took a year to complete; when I submitted it to an international competition I was a little daunted by the convenor’s description of it as a tiny work, which would be dwarfed alongside the larger pieces.
I attended an exhibition by South Australian academic, painter, weaver, Kay Lawrence who described the way she wove a portrait of her daughter. It was a blurred, out of focus photographic image. A third or so into the weaving, a fault happened which began to obsess the weaver; finally, she was no longer able to go on, so she cut out the offending wefts and corrected the fault. However, she also decided to ignore any further details she perceived as faulty, until the weaving was finished.I understand this from personal experience; perhaps by the time a work is finished there is an orchestral grouping; a greater number of details are now arranged, giving a complex unity; perhaps the detail that stood out before, now looked different within the completed perspective. Often, what I saw as faulty, while I was weaving, managed to blend on completion. All of this affects small works as well as large ones.
I began weaving tapestry in 1975. My first method was to interlock shape & colour, but often, in an attempt to create movement in my design, my patterns would be reduced to zig zag shapes. I then decided to leave vertical areas unattached, the “slits” that Archie Brennan advises his students to sew up, line by line. His advice was sound; the gaps, while allowing the work to progress quickly, were gaping & unattractive, on completion. I did not feel at home with the idea of sewing gaps however, to my mind it meant alternating between textile media, somehow not concentrating completely on tapestry.
In a sense I deliberately slowed down the process of weaving about a decade ago, by developing the patience to persist with a hound’s tooth join; adjacent areas would share the same warp, along which, colours would alternate. This can have interesting blurred effects, depending how colours are worked.
The speed of weaving was no longer a consideration. Small works still took a long time. The greatest painter of our civilisation, Leonardo da Vinci, would often go to his studio but merely stare for hours at an unfinished work. Sometimes he overpainted a detail, sometimes he just contemplated. A contemporary Australian painter, Ben Quilty, works on canvases roughly 5 X 8 feet in size; he will have finished one a day; in fact he emphasises that a work left unfinished overnight & having to be addressed, possibly re-interpreted the next day, causes him extraordinary anguish & mental turmoil. None of these observations are meant to indicate that I believe one method is superior to another.
I am a solitary worker, and a secretive one. For me there would be a problem openly discussing the plan for a tapestry about to be woven; an idea, that I may have thought of, is a bundle of energy. To discuss this with others, prematurely, carries the danger of disbursing that energy. Nor would I survive in the collaborative atmosphere of a workshop. The current project that I am completing has grown from several, unforeseen insights, moments of inspiration. Last night in bed, at 3 am I suddenly worked out how a particular corner could be worked. I cannot explain how I arrived at that thought. Perhaps Jungian analysis might help.
Since my first days as a weaver I’ve experimented with different media: applique, embroidery, macrame. Slowly, over the course of my career, I’ve tried to combine these, where possible. So, increasingly, over the last decade, I’ve completed works where small panels of woven tapestry sit alongside areas of button mosaic. More & more, this combination has forced me to examine what qualities each medium can contribute. In my current work, while the button assembly is sculptural, lustrous, tactile, my small panels of woven tapestry seem to spark the motor of ideas, the conceptual focus. The fact that woven tapestry has such a long history, in all cultures, seems to make this possible. The shuttling motion of weaving tapestry, laying down separate wefts of colour, seems to parallel online technology, the scanner/printer.
To summarise: large scale and miniature tapestries have different qualities. In every age critics of culture have compared different art forms. I had to study John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. My tutor described writing a large poem like squeezing toothpaste from its tube, consistency was the important quality. Similarly on a huge loom, uniform weaving is to be desired. By comparison, the small lyric or sonnet can be an intense spark; the miniature tapestry is a detail. The problem with comparing large and small works, in words or fibre, is that in today’s art world the spectacle is important. Definitions of artistry & the rise of new media have changed the artistic landscape. The colossal spectacle is needed to make a strong statement on museum walls. So size and monumentality are valued. The implied domesticity of small work might have been prized in Victorian times, perhaps we need new conditions to re-value small work. Only time will tell.
The Australian Tapestry Workshop produces large scale commissions while encouraging the production of miniature textile works from its visitor base. Perhaps slight differences in skills are involved in their production. But the textile community remains mutually supportive, especially online.