TEXTS SHOT THROUGH - TEXTILE AND PHOTOGRAPHY
Shot Through - Textile and Photography by Glenn Adamson accompanies the exhibition Shot Through, showing works by Chuck Close, Lia Cook, Kari Dyrdal, Johanna Friedman, Sabrina Gschwandtner, Kate Nartker and Karina Presttun.
Textiles and photography: the two mediums seem, at first, to be antithetical. On the one hand we have a painstakingly slow craft, and on the other an immediate and automatic process. One is constructive, the other indexical.
Weaving is rooted in the past, one of the most ancient crafts. Photography and its moving counterpart, film, are the ultimate expressions of modernity. Yet the history of textiles and photography are more intertwined than one would expect. At times each seems to strive for the condition of the other. Since the nineteenth century, textile artists have sought to revivify their medium by emulating the exactitude and fine grain of the photographic print. This tendency actually predated the introduction of the first cameras by several decades. The introduction of the Jacquard loom in 1801 offered designers the possibility of realizing detailed trompe l’oeil effects and to run them across long runs of fabric. The new looms were driven by punch cards that recorded extremely complex designs, which would have been prohibitively expensive to weave once but became good business once they were repeatable. The new technology was immediately used to emulate paintings, and with the introduction of photography it was perhaps inevitable that the two media should be combined, as Jacquard weavings had already attained a striking verisimilitude. The key innovator was the British textile entrepreneur Thomas Steven, based in Coventry (long a center for the production of “fancy” woven articles such as ribbons). His remarkably detailed Jacquard-woven “Stevengraphs,” first made in the 1860s, might be compared to etchings, and were based on hand-rendered drawings. But they emulated the look and detail of photographs, sometimes requiring thousands of individual Jacquard cards to realize the image.
The appealing strangeness of Stevengraphs is partly their retrospective novelty – one can still sense how intriguing they would have been to the Victorians – but also the way that they seem to compress temporality itself. A view that could have been captured instantaneously through a lens is instead replicated through an exhaustive process of card-punching and machine weaving, mechanical processes to be sure (as those of the photographer are) but ones of considerably greater scale and slowness. The resulting object has a sort of “weight” to it, as if looking itself had been brought to a crawl and attained a kind of physical presence. This same quality is evident in all the works in the present exhibition, which have been chosen to highlight the range of possibilities that artists today find at the intersection of these two seemingly antithetical media.
The contact point is perhaps most strongly incarnated in Kari Dyrdal’s Jaquard Stories series, based on photographs of a Jacquard loom itself. The one in the image Harness and Board is located in Tillberg in the Netherlands, where the artist does much of her weaving. Especially for the uninitiated, the pattern of threads may at first suggest a completely abstract design; only gradually does the recursive nature of the work, in which the loom is used to craft its own image, become clear.
Two portraits by Lia Cook and Chuck Close, provide the exhibition with its greatest moments of drama, as the inherent intensity of the woven photo is put to the service of mapping a single face’s topography. Both artists have a longstanding interest in the way that images can be built from tiny units, in such a way that they break down into abstraction from close range. The experience of looking at either work in the relatively narrow confines of the Hordaland Art Centre might well remind you of pressing your face to a television screen. Cook is and has always been a weaver, with a particular interest in adapting two-centuries old Jacquard technology to the new possibilities of digital design. The work included in the show portrays the artist herself as a child, adding a further layer of temporal flow to the space. Close is a prominent painter who often portrays other members of the art world – the work in this exhibition shows the American artist Lorna Simpson, well known for her politically engaged work in photo and video. Close relies on Magnolia Editions to realize his woven portraits; interestingly, this Oakland-based firm is normally concerned with printmaking, but has a significant sideline in tapestries which are produced in Belgium based on digital files. In both photography and weaving the mechanical means of production intervenes between artist and object, offering the chance for such creative expansions of authorship.
If Close and Cook give us a single person’s identity, pixelated and monumentalized, then Johanna Friedman and Kate Nartker investigate the perhaps more poignant possibilities of amateur imagery. It is probably within family life that the greatest number photographs are created, and certainly in that context they become unusually important as bearers of memory and emotion. Both Friedman and Nartker have studied at the California College of the Arts in the Bay Area, where Lia Cook teaches, and her influence on them is evident in their embrace of such everyday photos, as well as their use of stitches as the building blocks for imagery. But they both take the idea of the woven photo and break it apart. Friedman does so by slicing an image into three parts, which hang at different depths in the room. The picture is a haunting one. It shows the artist’s own family at a moment of uncomfortable disclosure – the key dramatis personae are just off stage to the left – and the lines of division between each person suggest an instant of breaking-apart, inscribed in the memory and never to be fully resolved. Nartker’s seemingly simple footage of a girl on a bike is laboriously constructed from hand-stitched panels, each based on a single frame of a home video. The title, West Main, situates the action just about anywhere. But the combination of the stuttering movement and the intervention of the hand, carried out over many thousands of stitches, produces an eerie sense of reclamation, as if this little piece of animation were the only remnant of an otherwise vanished past.
Sabrina Gschwandtner’s three-part film No Idle Hands also plunges us into uncertain temporal terrain. Though shot in 2008, her choice of now-antiquated Super-8 film creates a sense of distant past, which is underpinned in the whole by the use of folk songs and political protests evocative of the 60s. For this viewing, only the third and final part of the piece is shown: a low-fi technical experiment in which the clacking sounds of knitting needles are amplified through the use of contact microphones. The effect is percussive, reminding one of experimental music in the lineage of John Cage, but also intimate because of the close-up visuals. As Gschwandtner writes, the total effect is “gloomy, loud, mercurial, and ecstatic… [the] sounds echo back an abstract, aural sense of community.”
The final piece in the exhibition, by Karina Presttun, is not woven but rather appliquéd – a technique in which innumerable small pieces of fabric are stitched to an underlying layer. Though the work may seem an exception, it was actually an encounter with an earlier piece by Presttun that inspired me to curate this exhibition. So poignant is her choice of subject matter, and so exquisite her craftsmanship, that one would feel rewarded for any amount of time spent looking at one of her intimate panoramas, which depict young men on the brink of adulthood, who seem to experiment freely with their own identities. That Presttun herself has pored over every inch of these loving depictions of her ‘boys’ (as she fondly calls them), accumulating their likenesses from many thousands of scraps, never leaves your mind. It’s this very active form of making and seeing, I hope, that the unexpected meeting of photography and textiles will encourage in every viewer of Shot Through.
A note on the installation
The unconventional hanging of the space was designed by Anne Szefer Karlsen and her colleagues at the Hordaland Art Centre. Though I didn’t come up with it, I love the way that it renders the pieces into a set of linear elements, which only gradually reveal themselves as pictures as one enters (like threads becoming weavings). When drawn out on a floor plan, the display also suggests a set of warp threads running down the length of the gallery. The play in depth also affords layered views and shifting crops, a 3D walkthrough analogue to the possibilities of photographic composition. As an American, I also enjoy a resonance that will be lost on most European viewers. In the Southern states there is a term, the “shotgun house,” which refers to a long building with a very narrow front, with the doors all set to one side. The cost of a townhouse was often calculated based on the footage that faced the street, hence the odd proportions – you wanted your house as skinny as possible. The idea of the term is that you could open the front door, all the interior doors and the backdoor, and fire a gun right through without hitting a thing. That is roughly the layout here. There are other associations with the title – a silk can be “shot”, meaning that it has multicolored threads that shimmer in the light; you might think of a shuttle as shooting across the width of the loom; and of course you shoot a camera.
And there is an art historical reference too: the great critic Clement Greenberg’s idea of an abstract painting that hits you purely optically, all in “one shot.” This exhibition, clearly, is the opposite of that kind of seeing. It is a tacit departure from the idea that any art could be a purely visual experience. By insisting on the materiality of these two unlike media, I hope to suggest that all art can be understood as more complex if its making is fully embraced, rather than left to one side.
Glenn Adamson is an art historian and Head of Research and of Graduate Studies at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.