Anton Veenstra's Textile Blog

my textile career from 1975

Internalised Homophobia

In the “consciousness raising” sessions of the 1970’s Sydney Gay Liberation group the above concept was widely used. The idea implied that “we were the people our parents warned us about”; that we had been raised in a patriarchal, homophobic society, and calling out perceptions of effeminacy was strongly instilled from an early age. In fact, a study found that boys in their first few years develop strong concepts of masculinity and its components (brutal colours, harsh shapes and noises, competitive activity). Coming out to ourselves was a complex and traumatic experience. Having been sexually abused by a bisexual, young priest, I was told by another priest that I was not gay but could become gay in the worst circumstances. It was spelled out exactly so enigmatically.

Recently, I again watched a movie by Guy Ritchie, RockNRolla; it celebrates an inner London crime group based on the gay criminals of the 1950’s the Cray Bros, a mythical idol of the English working class, revisited even in such cult movies as Nick Roeg’s Performance with Mick Jagger singing Memo to Turner(starring the lovely James Fox). At the core of RNR is a trio of blokes, one is gay (he IS the Wild Bunch). They all do time inside, and on the eve of the gay crim’s incarceration he prevails on his best friend to comfort him in a way that crosses the line between gay and str8. No spoiler alert though. His other mate accepts what has happened: “you took care of a mate”. The language is eerily Aussie working class. The trio and the rest of the gang sit around at their clubhouse playing cards. Occasionally, one of their group walks in and addresses his mates with the phrase: “hello ladies”. No insult  seems to be intended, merely a breezy flippancy.

Replete with the gay reverberations of the film I was walking home; across the road from my local railway station was a house currently being vacated by a group of gay guys. They reminded me of paintings by El Greco (Burial of Count Orgaz) or Manet. I would have liked to work their likenesses in my textile media. However, I spontaneously greeted them (sotto voce) with “Hello Ladies”. I think only one of the group heard me and he laughed raucously. I would have liked to explain that it was not meant as homophobia but cultural effervescence.

The criminality of the film RNR underlines the way we still residually seen by society: as colourful if not actually disreputable and criminal. I hope one of the group manages to read this and can revise his possibly negative experience. The lesson I learned was that we can too flippantly make gestures that reach down into the subconscious and reference our early self hatred and the ridicule of the other on gender identity lines. As someone born into a working class background this happens far too easily.

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Transit Camp post WW2

transit LOWTransit Camp post WW2, button assemblage, 95 cms H X 83 cms W,

My mother wrote the inscription “Jewish labour camp, Lichtenstein mountain (?)” on the reverse of the photo I used to create this work. However, while Lichtenstein made use of people from camps for forced labour it does not seem to have been part of the Final Solution, the WW2 Holocaust. My mother may have been mistaken in her note that the camp had earlier imprisoned Jewish labourers (at the end of the war she was criticised by the Slovenian Resistance for having worked inside Germany; she was tried and imprisoned). Her face certainly shows fear and uncertainty in equal measure.

While she may not have understood the political significance of events happening all around her, as a refugee in a very strange culture of Australian Irish catholicism during the 1950’s she suffered and developed severe symptoms of cultural dislocation. Perhaps it was the guilt with which she saw her earlier years living in WW2 Germany. Even today I have difficulty travelling in Vienna, given its avid nazi history. My mother chose a couple of books for bedtime reading that contained horrendous photos of Holocaust victims. Perhaps it melded with the otherworldly, Dantesque church militancy that in those days catholics practised so fervently.

The photo was taken, it would have to be assumed, not in the worst of  circumstances: she is photographed seated on a chair in a yard. She wears a clean dress not a work uniform and she retains her gold crucifix and chain. The events that followed this photo being taken was that she was placed on an IRO (the International Refugee Organisation) ship from Trieste(?) which sailed to Australia; its first port of call was Fremantle where cases of smallpox were discovered on board and the ship was quarantined for a fortnight offshore. She was taken by rail to Orange in central NSW and thence to Cowra, where I was born. Augmenting the completion of this work was the fact, as celebrated by my two sisters, that August 2018 was the centenary of our mum’s birth; she had died from cancer in Nambour hospital and was buried at Buderim cemetery.

Earlier this year I had completed most of the work: the face, corrected the lips, suggested hair, dress, crucifix, chair, lawn outlines, sky. But I then temporally set the work aside. Recently, I returned to it; saw areas uncompleted that I might address. I was able to set myself a series of tasks, often completed at night, listening to music through headphones rather than watching TV. By rotating my attention across the work I was able to dis-spell the feeling that any particular task was too onerous. The tapestry equivalent is stepping the weft in a large area of a single colour so that a small area can be concentrated on, rather than having to weave horizontally line by line across the work. It is an age old technique; my confidence in its use was restored by seeing it in the Lady and Unicorn tapestries recently.

In addressing different areas my first task was to sort quantities of a particular button that I needed to carry a certain meaning. It was important that I had enough. This is an essential aspect of button assemblage, that a particular button is constructed of a certain colour, texture and shape; as such it is able to identify a particular characteristic of the work.

The slightly diagonal/vertical rows or folds on the dress: charcoal greys became shadows. A similar colour was used for rows of grass on the lawn/garden. I quickly completed the sky by using large pearl-shell buttons underneath the white buttons, while enough small blue ones suggested wisps of blue sky between banks of cloud. Directly behind my mother’s head on both sides was a row of buildings: these were created by a grid of black and brown buttons, around windows suffused with moonlight.

Altogether, the person was diagonally/vertically defined, as were the human constructions; the sky and the ground were based around horizontal lines. I have been a follower of El Greco’s work since I first opened art books: his elongated figures, his psychedelic awareness, his sheets of sudden, electric colours: hectic yellow here, blue there, then a startling red nearby. He is my spiritual mentor. I have endeavoured to work along those lines, especially in the purples of the dress material; my self assigned task is to create the impression of the softness of fabric paradoxically with hard buttons.

In my earliest button work, that of two miners showering together I experimented with the idea of creating towers (stupas) of buttons: this concept is helped by the fact that buttons, no matter their colour or size, have their attachment holes spaced equally apart. I was keen to re-introduce this in my current work, to alternate it with my basic mode of overlaying buttons, fish or snake scale-wise.

The lawn was variegated with luminous greens alongside luscious, pale 1950’s jade green, again a soft look evoked by hard materials. A large number of the buttons are collectible, heritage/vintage pieces of art deco designs. My rationale is the same as that used by ancient Egyptians: place rare and precious things with the burial so that the loved one’s peaceful transit through the afterlife will be assured.

Nebuchadnezzar, mangrove.

nebAs my work consists of a nude figure in a landscape and probably subject to Facebook restrictions on depictions of nudity I have shown a closeup. The work, just completed, is titled as above, 41 cms H X 64 cms W, double thickness warp, 6 per in, handspun wool, DMC cotton, synthetic wefts.

The Biblical figure in the title was an Assyrian king, in Babylon, Mesopotamia, described as having conquered the Jewish people and deported them. He suffered a humiliating bout of madness but recovered, having acknowledged the ultimate sovereignty of Yahweh. I refer visually to William Blake’s watercolour, but in the distortion of scale there are also allusions to Keith Vaughan.

Having been raised in central Qld, as a young boy I visited pristine mangrove beaches where dad showed me how to catch crabs. On one occasion I was alone in such a place: the tide was out and mangrove trunks towered overhead, blocking the sunlight. Perhaps it was a matter of scale but I grew terrified by the vegetation all around me, the wilderness, the vigorous, rampant growth which had an overwhelming oozing quality. Australian First Nations people say that the guardians of such places must be placated by greetings and song. In more urban environments, mangroves have only grown slowly, based on vegetation renewal programs.

The madness of the Babylonian king is set in a landscape of mud, which, like the seasoned mulch in a garden, contains great fecundity. Evoking the quality of mud was helped by using the warm characteristics of handspun wool. At the top of the work above the figure many loops suggest the energy and turbulent growth of the mangrove.

fig HI RES

ZELIM elegy

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREIn Memorium, Zelim with bromeliad (Billbergia), 27 cms H X 23 cms W. cotton warp, 8 per in; wool, cotton, synthetic wefts.

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ZELIM

Art as Gay Protest

On the 8th August 2017 openly gay singer Zelim Bakaev was seen being dragged into a car on a street of Grozny, capitol of Russian controlled Chechnya. The province’s ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, has since denied the singer was abducted by police on his way to his sister’s wedding. The ruler also denied he has conducted purges of gay people, detained in concentration camps where they are tortured and killed. Some of us like Bakaev may be neutralised although we live on as our culture’s heroes.zelim bakaev2Zelim was once photographed next to Kadyrov, who, in the face of worldwide protests, has released three versions of the fate of Zelim, including a video purporting to be in West Germany. The singer, or someone who looks like him, talks about his emigration; however, the monologue is stilted and obviously scripted.

RIP Zelim Bakaev.

When I Consider How My Light is Spent

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREMy first impulse was to call the work “Platonic Selfie”; Platonic as in the shadowy, idealised world, since no image when you start to weave it very closely ressembles material reality, no matter how hard one might try.

As a Dutchman I have Rembrandt and Van Gogh who managed to make their art a mirror for their personal development. Butterfly, Platonic selfie, woven tapestry, 27.5 cms H X 20.5 cms W, double warps, wool, cotton, synthetic wefts.

Originally, as in when I began the weaving project (heatedly, actually; not much earlier than the beginning of this week) Milton’s woeful sonnet titled “When I consider how my light is spent”. “Spent” is used in the sense of wasted, as Milton had become blind and depended on someone, an amanuensis, to copy his dictated poetry. Whether his visual deprivation hampered his poetry is a question difficult to answer.

When I Consider How My Light is Spent

is the opening line of a sonnet by John Milton, already blind (?). It is a meditation of light wasted, vision deprived. Yes, he might have been a painter, or a composer like Beethoven, growing deaf, soon unable to physically hear his works performed.

In a sense all artists conceive of and bring forth their works in an ether; the viewers/audience have to reach out and experience that unphysical realm.

I am joining a club for which introductory dinners are attended in suit and tie. I took the selfie wearing a purple butterfly. That sartorial detail encouraged me to launch a self portrait; in any case there is a project under negotiation of selfies over a period of time, from childhood to the present, from my beginnings as a tapestry weaver in the 1980’s to now. Firstly, the relevant curator will have to dismiss that fetish, beloved of such events, that work offered be created within the preceding two years.

Sonnet 19:  John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent,

   Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

   And that one Talent which is death to hide

   Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

   My true account, lest he returning chide;

   “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

   I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need

   Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best

   Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

   And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:

   They also serve who only stand and wait.”

It reminds me of a story by Chesterton about Father Brown preventing the theft of a set of silver knives and forks at an annual club dinner; his detection hinged (sorry, spoiler alert) on two points: that waiters and gentlemen were dressed alike at such functions. What differentiated them was the sound they made as they moved; he noted the sound of an indolently strolling gentleman enjoying a cigarette, compared to the hurried patter of the waiter’s feet, serving, returning, collecting.

It coincided with the ambiguity of Milton’s last line contained in the word “wait”. The waiter serves. We serve our maker. The disabled person assumes a limited attitude, waiting for destiny.

Meanwhile, considering how light is spent seemed to me an appropriate insight into the creative process. “Spent” has a subsidiary meaning of refraction, offering a spectrum of colours to the viewer’s eye. Following from my last self portrait, which embodied a serious and limiting attempt to realistically depict the face, here I wanted to return to the hectic, psychedelic splashing of colours; a starting point was the way that city neon lights illuminate everything, faces included. So, the climbing colours on both borders are reflected on the face.

While I have only explored this as an idea the influence of the Post Impressionists, the Nabis and the Cobra painters remains strong: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Derain, Seurat and Appel.

Yin and Yang

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I recently created a series of mandalas of which this is the fourth (30 cm H X 20 cm W). Together with the last one this work is concerned with the circle and the focus. As W. B. Yeats wrote, “the centre cannot hold; the falcon cannot hear the falconner”. The circle wobbles as does the centre; the colours are loosely parallel with some variations. Altogether, the exercise was one of riotous indulgence using mostly DMC embroidery cottons, three strands per shed.

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Having completed this I returned ironically to a cartoon, a self portrait I had abandoned and removed from behind the loom to start my earlier mandala. Both were like blessings; I decided to re-attach the cartoon and begin the selfie anew. I had, by now, changed my mind about aspects of the image: how much of the shirt I wanted to include around the neck and the colour of the material. It now became a dialogue of the golden cloth and a deep blue background with a silver shimmer through it.

With every portrait I’ve woven I’ve always found choosing skin tones problematic. This work was no exception. What was attractive about the prospect of the work was the diagonal alignment of the eyes and the downward position of the face, emphasising a domelike shape to the head.

At one point I exchanged the darker blue for one several shades lighter; fortuitously, this happened on the diagonal of the eyes. The left side happened earlier and the right side followed suit.

Some time later, like most of my ideas, just before I have fallen asleep, that time when the subconscious wanders freely, I pondered the possibility of adding a rainbow effect around the upper head: an acid green/yellow at eleven o’clock, blue/green at twelve, mauve at one. What was difficult about this scenario was extending its logic to the weather conditions at large of the background. Was it to be a dawn or sunset? If so should there be a blending/merging of colours to soften the effect.

Also, I was aware that just using a “halo” of colours gratuitously, out of the blue, as it were, might be interpreted as an ideological statement, as the rainbow of the LGBTIQ communities, as in my previous work, the Blond Youth with Two Rainbow Lorrikeets. I decided against this stratagem. Something about the selfie directed me along a simpler more austere path.

“An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

(Again Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium)

Weaving Techniques

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Not so much techniques perhaps as hints. I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s comment from The Picture of Dorian Gray? (must weave that image some day!): “what we once did with loathing we learn to do with joy”.  By that I mean that we stumble as beginners but years of practice guide us to refine our techniques. I once was given the job of teaching a group of students to weave tapestry, my mistake was to encourage their individual styles. That was mistaken for laziness and neglect. But how can you cram years of experience into weeks tuition?

The first pointer I would offer concerns the finishing of works. It is standard practice to begin and end a woven work with a row of double half hitches. This gives the piece firmness. There is no ambiguity about the bottom row. However, when the work is completed it has to be finished with this row of knots.  Firstly, how to tie the knot. Different people seemed incapable of articulating its formation. I choose a thin but strong thread and unravel about two double arms’ length of it. I find the mid point of the thread and place it behind the warp at the middle of the work. This gives one the advantage of halving the length of thread needed with each knot tied. First I might travel to the left. I make a loop of thread in front of the warp and draw the end of the thread through it and pack down. I repeat this and go on to the next warp. When I have finished the row I go back to the middle but travel to the right.

The top row of a work has the weft going over and under the warps; over it is like the crest of a wave, behind it is like the trough. I have sat in classes given by two eminent tapestry weavers, with different styles of working; there is no need to name them. They both have different ways of knotting. One insists that only one half hitch is needed on each warp; the other maintained that this made for insecurity, that the knots could unravel. I have decided to take something from each practitioner. The double half hitch is needed for strength and stability; if you knot the warps where the weft has passed behind, (the trough), its height will be equal to that of the crest where only a single half hitch has been knotted. It barely shows and the time taken to finish the work is lessened by a third. I merely throw these ideas into the ether for the receptive practitioner.

My next idea concerns weaving large areas at one time. I recently saw an exhibition of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Art Gallery of NSW. I took the precaution (being myopic) of asking one of the attendants if it was okay to reach over the corded barrier to peer more closely at the works. He said that was acceptable, just not to touch the works. A friend who had seen them or their relatives exhibited in Paris marvelled at how close the Sydney viewer was allowed to approach the work.

One of the weaving characteristics I noted was that often there were diagonal rows in the middle of a single colour; in order to concentrate their attention on a particular detail the weaver climbed, as it were, step by step, row by row on a diagonal incline allowing a more important motif to be completed, then they were able to return to fill in the interrupted colour field. Depending on how quickly the weaver worked, the incline was more or less visible.

When I first began to weave tapestries I used this technique but thought that the incline was too harsh, mechanistic and visually obvious; instead, I used series of zigzag shapes to disperse the visual obviousness of the diagonal climb. However, in my recent largish work Enigma of a Glass Half Filled I fell back on the idea of filling background spaces thus. The weft I was using was made of two strands; what I quickly realised as the most important aspect was to pay attention to how the weft turned at any one warp. If it sat well composed when the space was filled the diagonal was barely visible.

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Looking into the Mirror of Time

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Conscientious objector, 2001, buttons, objects, 45 cms H X 30 cms W.

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Passport photo, 2002, buttons, beads, 45 cms H X 30 cms W.

s7 me-scheyville-camps9 blond boys8-birthday-cake

Scheyville/bike, 45 cms H X 35 cms W.

Post migrant camp, buttons, 1998, 1 m H X 75 cms W.

Pizza, 2002, 40 cms H X 30 cms W.

I decided to elaborate a stratagem, a proposal for entry to an event. My idea is that the artist develops their self image in the work, not just as narcissism or introspection. I felt it might be interesting to present a montage of selfies I have woven over the 35 years of my tapestry career, as a tribute to the history of self portraiture visible in Dutch art history, for instance Rembrandt. As my father was Dutch and my mother Slovenian, one of my works is a fantasy in “lederhosen” and Slovenian folk motifs.

3014259 Veenstra, Anton 10_Janez & Franc

Veenstra, Slovenian costume, 2002, 1 m H X 1 m W. All my tapestries are cotton warp, 8 per 2.5 cms; cotton, wool, linen, synthetic wefts.

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This is my most recent selfie, 2016, 40 cms H X W.
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