John Armstrong

< back to cv entry

Artists say their piece: Adding to the long and proud history of textile art
TEXTILES, THAT IS TO SAY, Museum For Textiles, Toronto

Textiles have a long and proud history in the fine art of this century, from Goncharova and Rodchenko's workers' clothing after the Russian revolution, to Sophia Delaunay in France, to moderns like Jackie Windsor, Eva Hesse and Joyce Weiland, to contemporaries like Mike Kelley, Neil MacInnes and Gunilla Josephson (who opened at The Red Head this week). Each generation has its own reasons for taking up the medium; not the first, but maybe the paradigmatic example in this generation is Colette Whiten, whose very witty needlepoint miniatures, based on black-and-white news photographs, just closed at Susan Hobbs Gallery.

"Carmen [the late Lamanna, then her dealer] will kill me," she said in '87, before the first public showing of this work. She'd just moved from doing life-sized, plaster sculptures of body negatives, to postage-stamp scale. She'd seen the writing on the wall, that the strong was weak again (at present, a great compliment to an artwork), the heavy light again, the colossal runt again and the arm- gesture a stitch in time again. Far from killing, I bet he kissed her, he being always a man with a nose for the news.

Textiles, that is to say is an exhibition of textile art curated by Sarah Quinton and John Armstrong at the Museum For Textiles. It features the work of a generally younger generation of artists, and treats the definition of "textile" very broadly, which makes for a wide-ranging exhibition, all to the good from an audience point of view. Finish, attention to detail and attitudes to craftsmanship vary widely, which is what you would expect of a show in which no one claims to be a Classicist. On the contrary, there's an unabashed Romanticism here that I haven't seen in work for some time.

You could easily miss Mindy Yan Miller's installation as you enter -- she's buried the notion of a bad hair day in a Platonic time capsule, pinning a thick layer of black, straight human hair all around an alcove with pearlescent sewing pins. The effect is strangely discreet; this piece may in fact be closest in spirit to those anonymous rugs and artifacts created by unknown hands in the rest of the museum. It isn't Beuys' piled-up felt uniforms, Ben Wargin's eye-glass totems or Christian Boltanski's grainy photos, all evoking the Holocaust. Yet a nightmare lurks below the piece's serene surface. Whose hair was it? Were they alive or dead? What dreadful economy is this product a part of? (The hair comes from wig- makers' supplies.)

Laura Baird is represented by two pieces about Jonestown: "Jonestown Dead," a unique book, and "Jonestown Carpet," a needlepoint rug that was 10 years in the making. The rug, showing the shed with scattered bodies as bright slashes in a realistic depiction of a slide, is beautiful; still, it's scary to think of it taking 10 years. The book is simple and eloquent: each page contains one handwritten name, right 'til the back where there are pages and pages of John and Jane Does.

Naoko Furue has collaged red silk underlayers from kimonos together and mounted them on clay in a box. Robert Windrum brings the disparate arts of needlepoint and tattooing together. Bob Boyer paints on blankets, objects which, for native North Americans, are emblems of pride as well as of the worst of colonial policy in the last century. I was sorry he didn't feel more free to indulge in anachronism: by painting the American flag overlaid with the Union Jack, he absolves Canadians (though he maintains historical accuracy).

Sheila Ayearst is represented by a sumptuous black painting of a verge of Highway 401 that emphasizes canvas as fabric. Louise Noguchi is her inventive self, juxtaposing video stills of Marc Lortie, the gunman in the Quebec Legislature, with painted camouflage that contains the poster of a John Constable landscape painting. Ted Rettig's stone carving resembles the obsessive roseates in Irish illuminated manuscripts, like the Book of Kells.

It's a strong exhibition, and its curators can take credit for their choice of artists, a catalog that's well-written, researched and designed, and an inspired choice of venue. But their thesis is unproven. That is, that these artworks connect in some way to the anonymous history of textile laboring. The viewer need look no further than Spadina Ave., where, to this day, sweatshops full of immigrant women toil unrecognized and underpaid. Will their day of glory ever come? A rhetorical question.

In the meantime, the excellent artists in this show rest squarely in the dreaded tradition of European art that goes back to the Renaissance, when artists became auteurs and not anonymous drones in the service of the Church.

Eye Weekly, March 31, 1994