Textiles are intertwined with our lives from the moment we are born. Whether it's the soft flannel blanket that welcomes us as we draw our first breaths or the final shroud that covers our bodies at death, thread can embody the human experience in intimate ways. The current exhibition at TJ Boulting takes its title from The Subversive Stitch - Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, (1984) by feminist art historian and writer Rozsika Parker.
Parker notes that while artists (of both sexes) have worked with textiles for decades, the medium has historically been seen as inherently feminine and subsequently inferior to painting and sculpture. Sixteen exhibiting artists challenge this notion and wield needle and thread to subvert expectations of the medium to powerful effect.
Untitled (World Map #2) by Amanda Ross-Ho creates a looming first impression. What initially appears to be simply a white t-shirt amplified to comical proportions, is more unsettling on closer observation. This is not a crisp white basic. The fabric is blotched with paint and sweat-stained at the collar. It looks like it has just been pulled off a warm, yet giant body, slightly crumpled and well-worn. But whose body? In painstaking detail, Ross-Ho has mapped the position, colour and size of each paint drop on the original and transposes this onto a garment magnified to almost vulgar proportions. Ross-Ho isolates elements of studio practice and introduces them to the gallery, dismantling boundaries between the public and private.
Monumental amounts of clothing are produced each year by the fashion industry, most ends up in landfill. Celia Pym challenges these ideas of disposability, often initiating conversations with the public around the subject of clothing through the process of mending. In her piece Where Holes Happen Map a tracksuit, gloves, hat and socks are hand-embroidered in a fine seed stitch: the tiny dashes spread across the garments creating constellations of colour across the thick fabric. Resembling scabs on skin, these dots and ridges are not placed arbitrarily; the embellishment has been transposed from real-life acts of mending and is concentrated around areas of wear and tear. Like old blue jeans torn at knees or the frayed cuffs of much-loved sweatshirts, Pym’s garments record personal histories. They represent and celebrate visible traces of the tension between bone, skin and fabric: these artefacts punctured with thread represent a living body once in movement.
Elsewhere the hand-drawn line is translated to the woven in the work of Charlotte Edey and Bea Bonafini. In the two works Open and Spiral by Charlotte Edey combines surrealist imagery, modernist architecture and spiritual symbols to construct alternative feminine spaces. In Open, Edey depicts a surreal landscape with a giant sun (or planet) overlooking rolling hills that evoke the body: a pregnant belly or the soft lozenge-like shape of red blood cells within. A woman sits with her back to us, her gaze directed to a large teardrop hovering in front of hills in the background which reveal themselves as the shadowy profiles of two faces. Another figure stretches above, her arm raised as if caught mid-flight. Edey’s detailed illustrations rendered in pencil and watercolour are transposed digitally to the jacquard loom. The resulting tapestry shimmers in gradient layers of dusty pink and blues and recalls the artwork of 1970s science fiction paperbacks.
Bea Bonafini meanwhile turns to the artistic expression of the Neolithic age, inspired by the cave paintings found on the Sicilian island of Levanzo. Shapeshifting V is a large wall-mounted collage comprised of panels of synthetic carpet. Bovine, equine and human forms interlock in rusty reds, mud browns and slate echoing the earthy tones of caves. The soft pile evokes cosy interiors and retains its store-fresh fluffiness, having not been compressed underfoot with daily use. Bonafini draws a line from the Stone Age to the 20th century translating ancient symbols to carpet joining the jigsaw-like pieces by hand in curved seams that reveal hidden forms of a human leg, bird in flight.
James Merry, the only male artist represented in the show, usurps the territory of streetwear by embroidering vintage pieces with the pretty and historically feminine ‘flower’ motif. In Nike + Jöklasoley, Merry embroiders the flowers found in his adopted home Iceland onto a navy blue sweatshirt. The flower sits perched on the ubiquitous Nike logo recalling errant weeds growing out of cracked pavements, it’s delicate roots hanging off the recognisable logo – a mischievous act of rebellion.
Embroidery can speak across time and Gillian Wearing pays homage to the suffragette movement with her new edition Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere. A large handkerchief resembles Victorian sewing samplers and is embroidered with the signatures of suffragettes who couldn’t vote. The piece continues the legacy of women employing the tools of so-called ‘feminine labour’ to speak out to their suppression and unequal status in society.
Margaret Atwood evokes a similar tone in her historical novel, Alias Grace: “I am certain that a Sewing Machine would relieve as much human suffering as a hundred Lunatic Asylums, and possibly a good deal more.” In it, women were seen as creatures best left to channel their hysteric tendencies into crafts, sustaining the much-revered vision of domesticity. However, as The Subversive Stitch shows, the humble needle can be far from passive. While once a symbol of oppressive gender roles it is loaded with meaning and can be harnessed to express discontent and rebellion as much as creative expression. The production of textiles remains a site of tension today as labour practices and the treatment of the workforce – who are overwhelmingly female – come under scrutiny. At a time when much of life is lived and recorded in the ephemeral space of clouds and pixels, the stitch acts as testimony to the power of the human touch across time.
Artist imagery left to right, top to bottom:
Cover image 4086 (2018), Lilah Fowler
Untitled T-shirt (World Map #02), Amanda Ross-Ho
Where Holes Happen Map, Celia Pym
Open, Charlotte Edey
Shape-Shifting V, Bea Bonafini
Nike + Jöklasoley, James Merry
Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere, Gillian Wearing
Embroidered Headpiece, James Merry