my textile career from 1975
The first work, a close up of Mitcham’s foot contains fishing line that is transparently blue, a vertical sequence on the left of the work into which the foot is immersed in the balletic penetration of the dive.
The second work is a naturalistic portrait. Third and fourth refer to a dream I had where I looked into a pool of water wherein suddenly the colours became real and vibrant. Where previously my use of colour had been curliqued, in these two I decided to observe an extreme discipline of patchwork that harmonised with the interlock of the adjacent edges of weft areas. Suddenly also, I realised that the work of coloured depiction is about the language that colour speaks: colours adjacent each other on the wheel relate comfortably. In fact, colours by their distance apart, breathe, systole and diastole.
I intend, having been immensely fortified by the exhibition of my work in the show More Love Hours to create a collage/assemblage work to complement the above.
On the 2nd floor of the Ian Potter Museum, University of Melbourne, is a group show of 13 artists, More Love Hours curated by Suzette Wearne. It opened last week and runs until mid October 2015. As one of the participants I attended the opening. The title of the show referred to Californian artist Mike Keeley, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, about the notion that he expended a great deal of time, energy and life force in creating an object, the process meanwhile managing to obscure the boundary between art and craft. Keeley made use of cloth toys, both objects and processes not then associated with either art or craft. He found the process personally meaningful to enable him to examine his attitude to gender and sexuality.
At this point the reviewer of Keeley’s work, made the extraordinary assertion that the typical artist, Jackson Pollock for instance, is stereotypically female, intuitive, emotional. This resonated strongly with my having worked since the mid 1970’s in a medium that is seen as “women’s work”. The background to this is a wholesale indifference in the art world about precision with textile vocabulary: differences between embroidery, woven, tapestry and jacquard are glossed over in a way that would have merited scorn on a member of the art world were they to be as indifferent about drawings, prints and engravings.
I began writing poetry during late high school but realised that they did not adequately express my identity. During an end of year camp at Teacher’s College I watched a primary school teacher demonstrate tablet weaving; this was the communication I had sought; I created portraits and scenes that reflected my involvement in gay liberation and the gay and lesbian mardi gras. Perhaps to offset the way that an image seems to bleed deep into the woven fabric of tapestry I collected buttons and began assembling them, but also embroidered and practised knotting.
I contributed four works to Wearne’s show, three button assemblages and the latest, Apollo in Gaza, a button assemblage containing three samples of woven tapestry, each repeating a smurf image, eight warps per inch, interlocked wefts of wool, cotton, linen and synthetic threads. To outline my creative narrative: my parents came to Australia immediately after the war; my father was a soldier in the Dutch army fighting in Batavia as it was then known. For this he was given the base grade service medal, the Orde en Vrede, or Peace and Freedom. On my portrait of him I constructed this from scratch, making use of bureaucrat’s red tape, as I had recently worked in the public service. My mother had become a displaced person and was sent to Australia by the International Refugee Organisation on an Italian ship. Her father was Italian, her background Slovenian. The buttons I used to create her portrait I purchased in an Italian couture shop in Surry Hills, when it was the rag trade district in the 1970’s.
The third, a self portrait of a boy in a sailor suit, was a type of personal manifesto of citizenship; I had woven an image of myself in drab, heavy, unfriendly clothes, standing beside a toy bike, inside the refugee camp. The government regulations at that time about immigration involved two years internment in quite distressing conditions. The pregnant women, for instance, my mother included, had to strike for better food. When the two years had expired our domestic conditions improved; my work celebrated this experience.
The fourth work, Apollo in Gaza, was a bringing together of a number of different experiences. My travel in the late 1970 to Athens included a visit to the Archaeological Museum. The work that had the greatest impact was an Apollo that had been dredged out of Pireaus harbour. It obviously had been the object of worship in a temple. When my attention was drawn to this recent discovery of a bronze Apollo in a Palestinian fisherman’s net my creative juices were stirred. The statue was photographed on the floor of the man’s house on a smurf quilt. The personal attraction involves the persistent gay mythology surrounding Apollo; likewise with Krishna re the flute player, Buddha and Jesus, both of whom were reputed to have had a favourite follower, and lastly Alexander. For me, they are all conflated into a Jungian gay archetype. In the case of my work, the Apollo is surrounded by emoticons; a further irony is expressed by the label, top left, which consciously imitates the US Apollo space program.
The wall notes by Suzette Wearne described the exhibition as deliberately blurring concepts of “art” and “craft”; Wearne felt that by contrast established artists were more interested in “conceptual sophistocation”; this level of multi-media experimentation would, I feel, require a workshop of artists with diverse talents. The artist’s concept would constantly intersect with many crafts but at a distance and would depend on how successful a level of communication had been established. In my case with Apollo in Gaza, decisions emerged from contemplation of the progress of the work. Although I work long hours daily, I feel the most productive moments happen unexpectedly and unplanned.
Matthew Mitcham #3, 27 cms H X 24 cms W, 8pi, cotton warps, wool, cotton, linen, synthetic wefts. I want to celebrate gay sports people who achieve success while being open with their sexuality. I’d include famous gay women but post-modernism calls that patronising; I have to leave that to the sisterhood. There is already an obsession with gold in this work; I am tempted to create a Byzantine jeweled crown above & around the top of this image.
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.