There’s something of a theme about exhibitions in Liverpool right now.
The Walker are exhibiting Jacqui Hallum, Vivian Suter has a prime position in Tate and Alexis Teplin has taken over Bluecoat. It can’t be only me who’s noticed that three of the major galleries in Liverpool have all, at the same time, decided to give space to three artists all painting onto textile. Can this be called a “trend”? It does seem to indicate that curators are looking for something particular at the moment. To ask what this medium provides isn’t to detract from the intentions or individualism of any of the artists, of course. But what conditions might be influencing these choices?
One reason I think the question jumps out is that all three artists are female. The association between fabric work and the feminine is long-standing, and this history has been subject to increased critical scrutiny over the last forty years or so. The writings of critics like Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock laid the foundations for a reclamation of textile works as works of art, and for the accomplishments of craft to be considered of equal status. This has subsequently developed into a broader story of the hierarchy of art and critique of the supremacies which create the status quo. The study, use and creation of textiles in art is used to reflect not just on feminist themes, but also the structures of colonialism and capitalist forces. As the appearance of textile arts within gallery contexts (I don’t say ‘museum’, where they are sometimes still displayed as ethnographic curiosities) is ever more common, they still stand in defiance of the limits of the traditional canon of acceptability.
Is this what the appeal is? It may be a starting point, although none of the artists are specifically addressing feminist politics in their art – Teplin’s sense of domestic security and clothing comes closest. But if there is reclaiming happening here, other shared elements of the artists work suggest they’re perhaps going further. Not just reclaiming the use of textile, but developing what this relationship has to be.
For it is still often the case that to make or consider “textile art” is still to apply conventional techniques. Embroidery, knitting, quilting. To make space for these arts is legitimate, but it’s interesting that neither Hallum, Suter or Teplin really use these techniques. Instead they apply paint to their fabrics. Reading through literature around textile arts, this wouldn’t seem to be common. But of course, it is – to apply paint to fabric for artistically creative purposes is, by strict definition, far from a radical act. The predominant surface of art since around the 16th century has, after all, been canvas. But think of a canvas and you think of an ordered thing, a surface stretched neatly and rationally around a regularising frame. Even as artists through history have rebelled against the order formality of classical painting style, there’s rarely been an interest in changing this fundamental staple. And though a fabric, it’s also fair to say that canvas itself has closer associations with mercantile and industrial applications than feminine tendencies.
Currently, Liverpool is the place to come to see the fabric out of the frame. Display, and to explore what happens when you take the fabric out of the frame, has clearly been important to each artist. The result is universally more diversity, new relationships between pieces implied an imagined. The effect is particularly noticeable in Suter’s show, where her bold, glorious banners hang from the ceiling throughout the room. As you move, the groups and relationships between individual works change. Two which you might see as paired on initial glance turn out to be distant. The result is a fluidity and sense of playfully wanting to discover more. Teplin’s walls of sewn, dyed fabrics create a not-unrelated effect at Bluecoat. The space feels different: closer and more intimate than the gallery sometimes does. Holes in the patchwork give us glimpses of what’s beyond, but the walls demand us to walk around and discover all perspectives. At the Walker Hallum has kept closest to a traditional display arrangement, but still chooses to layer individual works in order that they might transform each other.
There’s another transgressive quality which links all of these works, and I’m searching for the right terminology for it. ‘Rough-ness’ doesn’t quite hit the spot, neither does ‘Messy-ness’ – although that’s what it maybe feels closest to, it implies a lack of care. And the quality I’m thinking about is definitely deliberate. Suter chose to leave her canvases at the mercy of the jungle, to have them walked over, the edges stained or frayed or curled. Teplin chose to make her walls out of pieces which don’t neatly align and create gaps and overlayers and colour mis-matches. Hallum chooses to dye her large sheets in blotches of uneven colours which collide in points. It’s a quality I will admit to personally finding frustrating. This messiness is not the way things are meant to be. We’re in the age of Marie Kondo, de-cluttering and minimalism – a time in which excess and a lack of orderliness is a failing. Against this, here are three artists who revel in the effect of the splashes and rough edges of disorder.
Am I reading anything specifically into this? Well, it feels rather trite to say that the rationally-shaped canvas is masculine, and thus to break out of its delineations an act of gendered rebellion. That to expect order of the world comes at the price of an emotional-spiritual expression so long associated with the feminine, which each of these artists has in some way embraced. Yet so much of the joy of each of exhibitions is to see what these acts achieve. Maybe it’s specifically feminist, or maybe it’s simply having the freedom to access these habits. The results are the same; three artists tapping into the expressive potential of breaking out of convention.
Of course, it may be that I’m reading too much into this. It could all be a coincidence: after all Hallum’s exhibition is part of her reward for winning 2018’s John Moores Prize, and the work of Teplin and Suter covers more ground than the focus of this piece suggests. I return once again, however, to the fact that three artists working with this medium have been picked up by three curators who may just be looking for alternatives to what a painting has to look like. If their emotional, un-finished fabrics act as flags signalling an alternative, I’m all in favour of this.
Vivian Suter at Tate runs until 15th March
Jacqui Hallum: The View From The Top Of A Pyramid at Walker Art Gallery runs until 27th April
Alexis Teplin: It’s My Pleasure To Participate at Bluecoat runs until 23rd February and is covered in my recent post Killing Me Softly
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