my textile career from 1975
Debout dans le feu saint. Woven tapestry, 12 cms H X W, cotton warps 8pi, linen, cotton, floss, wire wefts.
Another small format tapestry, which I have found contributes intensity. The two features of my personal style are firstly the hound’s tooth connection of adjacent areas, which I prefer to faster modes of weaving such as open slit areas which have then to be sewn closed; this in spite of the considerable slowing down of the weaving process allows me to meditate on the design as the work progresses. It was my first way of weaving tapestry, and foolishly I’d become dispirited by the slowness when trying to complete larger works. The most outstanding characteristic is that the weave gives a semblance of cloth without joins, seamless from top to bottom.
The second characteristic is a preference for convex shapes; these allow a greater flow between adjacent areas. Often, this creates a sense of velocity as the eye travels from one bulging shape to its neighbour;in the current work, I hoped this would evoke the turbulence of flames.
The title, especially in its French translation, is connected with my current meditations on the religious imagery of my past, especially golden icons and the ceilings of Italian churches. To that end I deliberately referred to the W. B. Yeats poem Sailing to Byzantium:
“O sages standing in God’s holy fire … As in the gold mosaic of a wall… Come from the holy fire…and gather me Into the artifice of eternity”.
While not wishing to evoke a too literal image of conflagration, I also wanted to refer to Gustav Klimt’s golden portraits.
A friend of mine is preoccupied with ancient cultures; he has studied ancient Greek and Latin as part of this preoccupation. The result of the activity is a type of racial DNA distillation which offers interesting insights. For instance, people examining the carpets and embroideries of subsistent people have noted the constant exploration of abstract shapes.
Generally, an art student might assume that the study of abstraction was a sophistocated activity only managed by an artist familiar with portraiture and landscape depiction genres. Whence is this activity derived? Is it a language retained as a memory of the past?
It certainly places the abstract phases of modernist painters into context. Perhaps, the oscillation between abstraction and folkloric depiction in the Russian Supremacist painter Malevich best illustrates this link.
My latest woven tapestry, 12 cms H X W, 8 pi cotton warps; wool, cotton, linen, floss and synthetic wefts, is called Heaven Sent.
My friend & I decided today to see the Frida Kahlo and Ribera exhibition before it closed. I have not visited the Art Gallery of NSW for some time and happily the Archibald and associated shows were also showing.
I was keen to see the Kahlo paintings, to measure their primitive quality against, for instance, that of Gauguin. Those of Ribera interested me less. His work, of famous women reclining against clusters of lilies reminded me of Georgia O’Keefe. Interestingly, the style changes he made seemed to parallel those of Picasso.
Kahlo, however, went on an individual track. I am not sure how much we attribute to her work retrospectively. Take the tragic music of Amy Winehouse; famously, she began a song in a nightclub but stopped and complained that all her songs were depressive. How much do we experience her work in the light of her tragically premature overdose. Or the music of Tim Buckley or Kurt Cobain in terms of their suicide.
Kahlo’s paintings were few; what took up the rest of the wall space was a narrative constructed of photographs; it was impossible not to look for frissons of the extraordinary suffering she endured. Nothing of that however, instead, she wore a dignity throughout. Towards the end of her life she seemed involved in anatomical studies, which also intruded into her paintings. Her last painting was multi layered, and it seemed that in it she had resolved her feelings for Ribera; now, he was both husband and child to her. The work had a cosmic quality of Mexico as both landscape of succulent plants, cacti, and numinous presences, sky & cosmic entities.
She seemed keen, however, to banish the label of surrealism from her work; perhaps, she saw this movement as making use of dreams and psychic dislocation or disturbance. I personally enjoyed the self portrait of her with four (?) monkeys among the background vegetation. In this work, at least she afforded the primates some freedom. Opposite the painting was a photograph, possibly the study for the painting? wherein she is seen to be cradling a monkey which is chained.
I feel unable to judge her meticulously painted work; clearly, it deserves historical acclaim rather than that of her partner. However, it is for others to make more precise judgements.
Tonight, on ABC TV I watched a report about the genocide by IS of the Yazidi people in northern Syria. This ancient people who have ever lived gently by themselves and wished only to practise their religion are being systematically killed by IS or, sold into sex slavery, a thing that the Saudi govt ought, if it values being considered civilised by the rest of the world, to condemn. The Yazidi religious system is based on a holy city and seven angels, the foremost of whom, the peacock angel is approximately equated with Lucifer, something I would identify with the English poet William Blake describing Milton as being of the devil’s party.
Meanwhile I went to bed but at midnight woke from the MOST amazing dream: I was travelling in the back of a ute with two friends Chris and Kashi? In terms of interpreting dream imagery I assemble images reworked from the previous day’s events. The ute or utility van came from the Yazidi doco, where IS used several vehicles to move five thousand women into sex slavery. But in my dream, reality was given a spiritual dimension as a nun from my primary school days gave me a cope or long, golden religious vestment in which I draped myself. As the truck drove off at speed I said to my companion (s?) “I’m SO out of it”. He said: “Don’t worry about it; she recognised in you the beauty of north Qld (Townsville/Cooktown)”. Every now and then, we would stop and amazing blue/purple birds would wake and stir in the bush. Perhaps the euphoria of the dream was a release from anxiety? In which case it worked wonders.
What I found intriguing about the way Yazidi culture has developed is that previously women who had sex, even if it was rape, outside of marriage, they were excommunicated. This only punished the woman, a common fate; now the people have decided to change this law; instead the women go to the sacred place and renew their attachment to their culture. Also previously children had been discouraged from becoming literate. Their neighbours, moslems, describe themselves as the people of the book. For Yazidi children to learn to read and write, usually in a mosque, this would encourage them to convert to Islam. Given their dislocated status in refugee tents, people are being encouraged to set up diasporas overseas, where literacy would become necessary.
As well as the tragedy of the documentary, I had played the album Greetings from LA by Tim Buckley, an amazing artist who ended his extremely talented life by suicide. Art seems to be only most purposeful when it expresses tragedy.
But in a similar vein, consider the fate of the LGBTIQ community: we in Australia are refused the right that our hetero brothers and sisters take ever so casually for granted, to marry and have our relationships recognised by society. Our status in this world is one that heteros feel they should be able to discuss, have an opinion on, generally judge. Just the other night, coming home from having visited a friend in hospital, I was walking past a group of young people at a railway station when one of the young women called me a faggot. In my early 20’s, I was still recovering from my religious upbringing, abused at age 12 by a catholic priest, alienated from my family, indeed from most of society. As the slogan ran in the 70’s: we are the children our parents warned us against. My religion tried to teach me that expressing the desires of my body made me of the devil’s party. It has taken a long time to undo that warped thinking, and, like the rest of my community, develop a reality that is peacock-like. Devil’s party indeed. But our community certainly knows how to party.
I was sitting in a Sydney train, having visited a friend in hospital, when a young man sat down next to me and in a notebook started sketching a woman seated opposite. She incidentally was studying the scores of Bach cantatas. I noted how talented his work was and asked whether he worked the sketches into paintings. He said he no longer did so; eventually I was able to make out that the pressure of earning a living had forced him to give up his creativity except as a part-time, fringe activity.
I urged him not to abandon his talent, but he said he did not believe in talent, which was repetition. He did talk about the joy he experienced from his work; I thought that there were Buddhist dimensions to the activity; sometimes an idea led you in unexpected directions.
At best, I could only offer the idea that our society undervalues art making; for instance in Sydney’s major art event the Archibald Prize, people bet on various artists winning, like thoroughbreds; then it sees its art makers as the deliciously wounded: Amy Winehouse, Tim Buckley’s early demise. the live hard, die young. All of these led to a greater appreciation of the artist concerned, in the case of the artists still alive well earned. I told the guy I hoped one day some artist would come along and create a monumental social realist work: like Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, or Seurat’s Bathing at Asnieres.
We can but hope. Meanwhile, I told the guy he had to believe in himself; ok somehow making a living, but that’s the tightrope act we all perform.
I know both Jung and Freud held dreams as important in their scheme of things. Yesterday, on ABC TV Compass the Swahili Lutheran community at Shepparton in Victoria got an airing; back home their diamond mines are important: large pools of muddy water and rubble are sifted through for the sparkling pebbles worth a fortune.
Dreams are like that: fragments from previous days are thrown together. For me, a wonderful moment out of Friends when Ross holds a dianosaur egg became an image of a bird that dug tunnels into which it laid its eggs. There are other fragments that relate to my lived life, including a poignant sense of broken narrative, fragments that refuse to allow themselves to be re-attached.
I suppose the re-working of the image, its re-positioning makes it available for interpretation. The classic poetic example is Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, where he begins with a narrative that he loses track of, then there is a commentary, from the sidelines as it were. The best he can manage is to evoke the sense of loss.
Mid-winter and the heavens opened a lot; it inspired my small tapestry: Rainfall, 13 cms H X 15 cms W, 8 pi, cotton warp, cotton, wool, linen, synthetic wefts.
Like a number of other works before it, Rainfall is about flow: one idea merging with another, one colour supporting another; both opposites meeting and near likes, always the hounds tooth meeting of edges enabling it to happen.
The Art Gallery of NSW is currently running a show of the works of Frida Kahlo along with those of her husband Diego Ribera, while in another section the Archibald Prize for portraiture is about to be judged. This has become a locally identified event, with curators offering odds for betting on possible winners. A Packers’ and a People’s Awards are also given out.
This weekend the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article on whether Kahlo’s work would even have been accepted for the Archibald. Presumably this is based on the fact that her works are not large; that same argument has run in the woven tapestry community, with someone quoting the phenomenon that in French weaving ateliers small tapestries were described with that well pronounced Gallic sneer as “dishcloths”.
It is interesting to deliberate on Kahlo’s status in contemporary art; while she and Ribera were alive his was the more forceful presence. Now, Kahlo has a global reputation; yes there is a strong feminist component. There is also the gothic romanticism attached to someone who lived a life of intense pain. There are comparisons that could be made with Amy Winehouse amongst many others.
But the assertion that her work would not fit in an atmosphere of portraiture surprises me. Her self portraits contain a component of surrealism and “primitivism”, not to mention references to her ethnicity. Her depictions of self are adept; all in all the roles have been reversed: she attracts adulation while Ribera is covered in the dust of obscurity.
This week SBS showed an amazing doco about the distribution of Picasso’s works among his wife, mistresses, children and grandchildren. His career was clearly a number of different phases, the last one being a conscious re-working of previous images. The doco also showed the narrative of the great painting of Guernica, the town bombed by Franco during World War Two. It travelled to many cities, staying in MOMA, New York but has now been transported to the Prado in Spain, Picasso’s homeland.
The government of France appropriated 3,000 works in lieu of death duties, on view in the Picasso Museum. The magnificent image, the Demoiselles d’Avignon is also in Paris; it is notable as being the work that began the cubist movement. Several recent travelling Picasso shows have included a number of sketches for the Demoiselles, enthralling for the influence of African sculpture that they show.
The doco gave an insight into the facility Picasso possessed; painting on glass or the sand of the beach was a process that took place with the greatest fluidity. To my mind, this has both positive and negative aspects; other artists, for instance Cezanne, have worked at images with a greater, more stolid deliberation. Perhaps one might argue that personality determines the speed of working.
Another program on SBS is Rockwiz, a Saturday night event; its most enjoyable feature is the remembering of recent music, the re-interpreting of songs. My thought is why cannot this cultural process take place in the field of painting and textile, with as much verve and passion? I know legal implications apply when one musician appropriates another’s melody; is there a similar minefield with visual or textile artists?
I think I’ve been under the spell of this type of ethnic craft for much of my career. Firstly, I grew up in the tropics and understand living under torrid conditions. You see African news items: especially from Nigeria; the colours worn are extraordinarily vivid. I’m three days into a bout of flu, so I’m a tad feverish, but some of the colour combinations evoke the extreme temperature in the most efficient way. In spite of my recent and unsuccessful comparison of music and textile in my blog, here the cloth, woven on a four inch loom, lays down large motifs that you could consider horizontals, contrasted with which are motifs running the same direction as the warps.
The pattern resulting:A1, a1, B1, a2, A1, C1, c1, C1, c1, C1,b2, C1, C1, b2, C1, b2, c1, A1, a1, B1, b2, a1, A1. Without getting too musicological, that could read as an operatic aria?