Textiles themselves have been an integral part of human life since the earliest civilizations, but their development as a fine art is a bit more recent. Encompassing all aspects of the medium, from weaving and quilting to fabric dying and embroidery, textile arts have primarily been thought of as a craft (as opposed to "art"). Working with fabric is generally considered a practical skill, applied to clothing and domestic objects, and finer approaches like needlework and lace-making came to be associated with more genteel folk. Many aspects of this craft have come to be appreciated for their visual aspects alone, with early examples being tapestries created in medieval Europe and fanciful fabrics seen in East Asian clothing. Used for indoor decoration as well as insulation in private homes and churches, tapestries could reflect wealth and status as well as religious piety and nobility in their themes. Popular primarily in medieval and Renaissance-era Europe, they saw a resurgence in the late nineteenth century due to the efforts of William Morris and his general promotion of traditional textile crafts. Japanese kimono fabrics are wearable art, combining complex embroidered patterns, colorful dyes, and narrative references for an array of gorgeous silk textiles.
The Unicorn is Found, 1495–1505. via The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Kimono (detail), 1850-1900. via The Victoria and Albert Museum
For me one of the most interesting aspects of textile art is that because of its long-held status as "women's work," it became one of the primary media for female artists of the 1970s, many affiliated with the burgeoning feminist movement in Western countries. Desiring to separate themselves from the patriarchal, exclusionary traditions of the past, these artists took to experimental and "low" artforms like sewing and weaving as a way to break new ground for women in the arts. They elevated domestic crafts into the high art sphere, often commenting on women's societal roles and relationships in the process. Before Claes Oldenburg popularized it, Jann Haworth began creating soft sculpture figures and objects in the early 1960s as a way to push against the overly masculine themes seen in her male-dominated art school. For her, "It was a female language to which the male students didn’t have access.” Quilting was another popular medium, employed by artists like Miriam Schapiro and Faith Ringgold. Schapiro pulls from women-made crafts for her collages and paintings, incorporating quilting imagery. With help from her mother, Ringgold blends painting and quilting in narrative works that stress community and black women's experience. Acting against her knitting-obsessed contemporaries, Rosemarie Trockel has designed machine-made "knitting pictures" with repetitive patterns, meant to mock the over-done DIY approach of some feminist artists working with fiber.
Jann Haworth: Donuts. via 15 Bytes
Miriam Schapiro: Foliate Fan, 1979. via ArtNet Auctions
Faith Ringgold: Tar Beach 2, 1990. via The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Rosemarie Trockel: Untitled, 1987. via Phillips Auctions
Today, artists continually expand the boundaries of textile art, combining multiple techniques and materials. In his ongoing united nations project, Gu Wenda weaves human hair into huge room-size installations, conceptually uniting peoples of different regions through their contribution of hair. Gabriel Dawe mounts exuberant thread sculpture, creating optical trickery through interwoven colors and lines. Referencing famous works in the Western art historical canon, Devorah Sperber makes works with spools of thread, painstakingly organizing the rolls into pixelated images that- when inverted- mimic paintings by Picasso, Vermeer, Warhol, and the like. Though she is using a craft material, Sperber takes a more painterly approach to her image-making, combining points of color in an almost Post-Impressionist manner.
Gu Wenda: united nations - babel of the millennium. via Deidre Adams
Gabriel Dawe: Plexus #4, 2010. via Hanneorla
Devorah Sperber: After Picasso, 2006. via 1stdibs
If you'd like to seek out more textile art in Boston, there are two major exhibitions happening this spring at local museums. Nick Cave's new show has just opened at the ICA, featuring a number of the artist's "sound suits." These marvelously intricate sculptural costumes are embroidered with buttons, sequins, threaded patterns, and an array of found objects. When worn by dancers, they create a music of their own, hence their name. Like the pioneering textile artists before him, Cave fuses craft and high art, but adds an element of performance. Opening in April, Quilts and Color at the Museum of Fine Arts will display a variety of quilts from the collection of Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy.
In the meantime, both textile-inspired exhibits at UFG ("Woven" and Joetta Maue's "When All the Plants Need Water") will run through Sunday, March 2.
Nick Cave: Sound Suits. via The Fox is Black