Monday, August 10, 2009

surface seduction - patting isn't enough

All those surface design techniques (shibori, screen printing (whether constructed, deconstructed, or otherwise disported!), discharge, pastes made of corn, rice, flour, potatoes, old shoes or anything else, stamping (with rubber, foam or gusto), clamping, phototransfer etc etc ) are so seductive!! They're satisfying to make because you've an instant result, often magic! But then, what d'you do with the fabric you've created? I'm sorry, but patting just isn't enough!

Art quilts are begun in many different ways: from a concept, a sketch, an idea, a pattern - but I think the most difficult way to begin a piece is from the fabric itself - which there is a great temptation to do when you have made luscious fabric. Could a painting be about paint? or a sculpture about stone or steel? For a short while there was a fashion to make work about the process - I remember seeing a framed canvas with one knife slash through it....and no paint at all!! But we have seen that. We know that ceci n'est pas une pipe! A painting is paint and canvas, not boats on water, Grandmother's flower garden was hexagonal pieces of fabric (especially if she lived in a city!). Therefore, I think beginning a piece "from the fabric" isn't a particularly valid, unique or interesting idea. Imagine: "hey! I made this quilt about this new fabric I just dyed/purchased!" What do you say in response? There's nothing to say except enquiring how or where...there's no interest in the design.

A quilt about stamping might be interesting to stampers wanting to learn a different way to stamp (raise your legs higher!) but isn't going to be very meaningful to a wider audience. (Thus Hoffman's comment that "quiltmaking is the most redundant when jurying because quilters don't step out of their comfort zone.") If we're only making work about things that interest other quilters, or stampers or tiers and dyers....then those quilts don't add anything to the art world - they are redundant, it's been said.

So despite the seduction of the medium, I do think a concept, or idea or overall structural pattern - something above and beyond the medium itself, that you want to communicate- is important if you wish to make strong appealing pieces. We see this in Joan Schulze's and Linda Colsh's work with images (whether from photo transfer or screen printing) - their images relate to an overall theme, an idea they want to convey - whether the loneliness of old age, or the gilded portrayal of women portrayed in advertising.

The organizing theme could be a concept like old age or it could be an overall patterned structure as in traditional quilts. That's part of the reason why many of those old quilts are so strong. There are many different kinds of organization or structure or "backbone" as Twyla Tharp calls it in her book The Creative Habit work - there's lots to choose from. But I do deplore those quilts that look like sampler pages from a surface design text book.

So now I'd better go and THINK about my gorgeous seductive fabric...as well as stroking it!

If you have been, thanks for reading! Elizabeth

PS - I do enjoy comments, they'll set me cogitating...and my responses will gradually occur in blogs to follow! so please do.....
the next blog, however, should have the pictures from QBL. For tomorrow I fly home - Delta and thunderstorms and shuttle buses willing.

19 comments:

Jackie said...

I missed you, but you'll have lots to share! I appreciate the links you included today. Both Colsh and Schultze use their enhanced fabric to create something new, it's not just about the fabric. Excellent example. I am not feeling the need at this stage to do dyeing and printing, the brief encounters I've had haven't been productive and I enjoy the search for just the right hue and value of commercial fabric. What led you into surface design? I find the whole process intriguing, just haven't been there---yet.

sandra wyman said...

Been there and done that (even winning a special award for hand-dyed fabric at one point) and I know what you mean, having struggled with not allowing method to oust meaning (and often losing the struggle) for some time now. Now I'm aware of it and trying hard not to get sidetracked! Thanks for this post. Love the work of the people you've chosen - personally would add Jette Clover as well!

Crazy for Art said...

Thanks for your last two posts. They have really given me something to think about. I've decided to work on my color/value combinations in simple settings and go from there. Maybe I need to think about dying my own fabric? Or maybe the challenge is to work with commercial fabric as Jackie said mentioned.

Terry said...

Oh, thank you for saying this. Thank you. I have seen way too many "seduced by the fabric/technique" pieces. Did I say thank you?

Ferret said...

I wonder if fabric actually speaks louder when it talks about something other than itself. I have a couple of bed quilts that were made to show off fabric. I think they do it well yet few people have commented on the fabric. On the other hand three of my most recent art quilts are pictorial and people do comment on the fabrics. They see the image then look more at what made it up.

Deborah Stearns said...

Interesting post, and I can see your point. But in some sense, anything that inspires us to create is only the beginning of the process. An idea, an image, a color, or the materials themselves are just the jumping-off point for the process of creation. In that sense, fabric (or paints or pastels or rusty pieces of metal) are perfectly valid as sources of inspiration -- as long as you don't think that is the end of the design process! I might look at a piece of hand-painted fabric and see ghostly images of trees, or urban decay, or a lullaby, and that would kick me into the process of trying to use the material to realize my vision. Many artists, particularly mixed-media and textile artists, find inspiration in their materials. I guess the question is what constitutes a successful realization of that moment of inspiration.

Maxine said...

This is why I stopped curating only fiber . . . because it was so incredibly difficult to get work that went beyond the fabric or the technique or, or, or . . .

Carole said...

Interesting take on the 'process'... makes me wonder if it is because of the tutorials out there, the expectation that every work will be described in detail as to how it was arrived at...
It is and always will be the ingredients that make the cake...is that what you are saying? Not the beating of the eggs, but the fact they were beaten? Not what came first... the chicken or the egg?
Curious....

Sandra said...

Fabric and techniques without intent = a technique sample. Add intent + talent + design principles and then you may get art. It should come down to why things are made not how.
Too many people fall for the quilt art material marketing: paintstik + tyvek + beads = art. Techniques and tools should be means to an end not the end. Learning different techniques allow you to create your own fabrics or enhance commercial fabrics to develop your own vision. Fabrics CAN inspire and motivate, look at the Hoffman challenge-some look like a paint by numbers (use challenge and coordinates in x pattern) while others are well designed art quilts and it is hard to see that they started with the same fabric.
Thanks for the thoughtful posting.
Sandra

Diane Wright said...

YES! You've put structure to niggling notions too embryonic in my own mind to find shape. Thank you!

LaughingLG said...

Amen! I love surface design, but a pretty surface isn't enough for me. Indeed, I often get stuck when using my own dyed pieces because it's hard to move beyond the "seductive" surface to see what greater meanings there are.

PaMdora said...

Good post Elizabeth.Thanks!

TextileTraveler said...

Sorry if you've already read this; it's a version of a message I sent to quiltart: While I'm in agreement in theory that work should be about more than "just" the fabric, I'm a little troubled by the assumption that surface design is not, in itself, an art form. I'm not sure I can make a distinction between applying paint (or dyes) to fabric and applying it to canvas. Ive seen complex cloth that is very well designed and carries its own "narrative," in the sense of abstract art. I think the "what do you DO with it" question for people who work with surface design (including myself) comes NOT just at the end, when the fabric is finished, but during the process--taking the blank canvas (fabric in this case), and transforming it into something that speaks to the artist, or speaks for the artist, or speaks to an audience, or however you define art. From there, people take their surface-designed fabric in different directions--some make wearable art, others make quilts, some apply the fabric to a canvas, etc., but often the quality of the work IS about the fabric, because that's where the art "work" has taken place.

This may or may not be a different issue than experimenting with techniques; I have a lot of fabric that I've saved from technique-experimentation, and that's typically the stuff I look at think, Ok, what do I DO with this?

TALL GIRL said...

Great post and I am in agreement on so many levels. Although you've surely caught me on the 'inspired by the fabric' line. As one who often wonders why I don't spend more of my time designing fabric...I love it that much; I have taken to writing 'inspired by the fabric' on my website when I can't think of anything more glamorous to say. I will stop immediately!!! This reminds me of how people often want to affix meaning (and logic) to abstract art. Simply put, it is what it is!

The Pink Ganeshji said...

Great post. I agree on so many of your points. I did a workshop with Jette Clover several years ago where she pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone, I considered not going back for the second day. However, I did go back and it was a huge turning point for me as an artist. I believe creating fiber art from a story or a theme is a totally different process (and product) than making something aesthetically appealing from fabric. But, I also believe they both have their merits.

Aussie Jo said...

You have stimulated lots of different comments here. It is all very well to develop art that has meaning, a message or a theme and I find these quite interesting to explore. However I also love to see art that is simply beautifully formed, whether it be the colour combination or the composition of the design and not necessarily be trying to make a statement.
Every person has a right and often a need to create and I am all for encouraging everyone to have a go and develop in their own way, whether that be technique based or design based.
I think taking the moral high ground is a little like the "stitch police" (they are still out there, watch out!!!)

sandra wyman said...

Returning for another bite of th cherry: congratulations on one of the most thought-provoking posts in some time. Further reflections on fabric esp. hand-dyed: I do find from time to time that h/d fabric sets my mind off wandering - trees, water, recollections of places, events and so on, as people have said: but this needs to be the starting-point for the quilt, ideas that can be worked on further. For me it may mean purposeful dyeing followed by sketchbook work trying out ideas and designs - others may have other working methods. But whatever it involves WORK (I really don't believe that anyone can make twenty art pieces in a day (as some have claimed to do) that are worth doing: even when the processes come easy the preliminaries need thought and care and exploration.

And some clarification here about meaning in art - as Aussie Jo suggests a lot of people tend to think of meaning as the sort of meaning you can get in a printed newspaper article - but meaning can be a whole range of things - capturing a mood, exploring tricks of the light, feelings, memories, whatever and then communicating them via artwork...

Jane Dunnewold said...

I agree with you. Art cloth isn't just throwing a bunch of processes at the cloth and then sitting back to admire it. The same rigorous standards that apply to any well crafted work of art apply to art cloth...and you can quote me on that if you want to! I think too often people feel they have more license to "play" on an art cloth surface, and the result is a disjointed piece that doesn't fulfil its potential. Part of the message I am always trying to get across in my own teaching.

Jane Dunnewold

Nina-Marie said...

I too - like the majority want to agree with Elizabeth. I think this whole process surface art has become so popular because it helps that urge in all of us to creative experimentally, tactilly, and for the most part in a timely manner. Of course, manufacturers feed into it because now there is a whole new tool box of supplies, they can sell quilters. Still good design is always at the root of all good art no matter what your media. What I have found out lately (and struggle with regularly) is that good design takes time, patience and persistence. Its not something that will be magically found by putting more layers or embellishments on.