my textile career from 1975
On March 12 I completed my smaller Beach tapestry Surveyed, as in “lord of all he surveyed”; that indolent habit people have on beaches of looking at reality through their toes, as if through a measuring comb. I had it photographed, wrote the accompanying blog and immediately warped up my next loom. This took some time as I was determined to use, for the first time, a copper loom with tensioning threaded rods on both vertical sides. Many things went wrong: the top and bottom horizontals buckled and had to be reinforced. The tensioning was clanky as I used extension pieces with extra washers and wing nuts. The result was an uneven spacing of the warps.
However, tonight, I completed the tapestry, 57 cms H X 43 cms W; 8 EPI; cotton warp, wool, cotton, linen, synthetic wefts. About a month’s worth of work. A friend of mine who masters in Japanese braid and European lace, but also drawing and painting, has long criticised my images for being “too cribbed, cabined and confined”. I determined, therefore, to have my figure striding above an exhilarating expanse of sand. I had managed to find the right yellow for the weft with which to depict sand. I combined the yellow with a Swedish grey/silver linen thread and a beige crochet cotton thread. Together they echoed wet/shimmering sand. I returned to that linen mid blue that I had used several works ago for the striding shadow. Sand and shadow seemed to work well together: the sand reflected sunlight in its silica crystals, while the shadow fell on things, totally obscuring some while merely glancing at others.
Upfront, I must express regret to my US Fb colleagues if they find the striped towel, centre top, reminding them of their flag: totally unintended. A colleague on Fb recently engaged me in discussion about the Norwegian hound’s tooth join of adjacent weft areas. I only remembered later that Oscar Wilde, in his gothic novel The Picture of Dorian Grey, writes that when you impart a truth to someone, and the truth resonates strongly in the other, there is the effect in yourself of no longer believing in the matter. This has happened to me. I no longer need to mesh shapes together with that slow join. My use of the interlock now takes place elsewhere, in a large monochrome area, stepped so that an adjacent shape may be completed faster. When you return to fill in that area care is required lest bulging gaps are left along the join.
Yes, the sunbather seems to lie on one side of his towel, for whatever reason. Meanwhile there is a further liberation whereby human figures are depersonalised; they no longer need humanising detail. This accords with the theme of sun bathing being an act of self absorption, of meditation. As my friend described over breakfast, the abstraction is grounded in reality. The figures are so based in reality the viewer is not led down an intellectual path of abstraction. Yet the liberation of diminished detail is still there.
The striding figure, his shadow and the recumbent figure on the striped towel are linked by overlapping shadows. I used a basic formula where the scarlet stripe became purple/black in shadow, while the pale/shimmery blue was submerged within the mid blue shadow. A kind critic on Fb described my last work as deceptively simple. I hope he thinks the same of this one. There is a whole aesthetic school based on making simplified art; the slogan “art concealing art” says it all, while the French novelist Raymond Radiguet made it his life’s work to write in a deceptively simple way.
Therefore, the striding figure, his shadow and the recumbent sun worshipper form a triangle. The heads of both shadow and strider fall on opposite diagonals, reinforcing the structure. The expanse of empty sand at bottom is balanced by the dynamic mesh of patterning at the top (towel stripes and shadows), creating a push-pull. Do I need to exactly quote the words by poet T. S. Eliot about the shadow striding away from you in the morning. It’s out there.
All Surveyed, 28 cms H X 25 cms W; cotton warp, 8 pr in; cotton, wool, linen, synthetic, gilt wire wefts.
United by the colour blue that they have in common, the beach towel and swim shorts conduct a dialogue, against the darker blue, almost black, of shadow. All of this inside the meta-narrative of the whole composition: a work of cloth depicting cloth. I made use of a poetic whimsy by infusing the areas of shadow with glitter, as if the crystals of sand could be seen to sparkle within shade.
The sunbather leans back in buddhic repose. Is there a yoga pose like this? I’m sure there is. The title refers to that pretentious piece of Victoriana: “master of all he surveys”, from the age of global colonisation. Nevertheless, during meditation, consciousness and the subject on which it settles become one.
In Norwegian Tapestry Weaving Maria Koppen describes the lazy line of quickly working upwards through a monochromatic expanse as “stepped”. The book also recommends that the subject be woven vertically rather than sideways or horizontally on the loom, when the weaver needs to use vertically open slits as part of the design.
Norwegian Tapestry Weaving, by Maria Brekke Koppen, translated by Christine Spangler, Eikeskog Press, 2006, Oslo, Norway. Sincere thanks to Pat Scholz for the gift of the book.
32.5 cms H X 55 cms W; cotton warp 12/45, 3 per cm; wool, linen, cotton, synthetic wefts.
Beach #5, The figure closest to the viewer’s scrutiny has two items (or three) of textile interest: his striped boardshorts deliberately evoked in synthetic fibres, favoured by sun worshippers because of their ability to withstand wear and tear. The carry bag, also synthetic, and beach sandals (called “thongs” in Australia).
When it came to weaving these details the shifts of colour were so minute they demanded weaving vertically on single warps. It was a short step to using this method in larger areas. One might argue that it separates figure from landscape.
In a previous work, (Beach #3), my use of the traditional technique of using a stepped weave to complete a particular area was described by a colleague as “a lazy line”. This fits with the temperature, the torpor of the subject matter. The lazy line often leaves a series of visible gaps; the stepping of woven areas that I used earlier rather than the “hound’s tooth join” leaves similar gaps occasionally. Although, even the alternating of wefts can leave gaps.
The ambiguity that drives this work is in the join of the figures: are there two figures, or just one doing an exercise? The pattern of the shorts suggests creases and movement interrupted.
The temperature of the work is torpor: one is reminded of Albert Camus’ novel L’Etranger, where the white Algerian is on a beach; overcome by the heat he pulls out a gun and shoots a man. But why was he armed? UK post-punk band the Cure made of this a song: “Killing an Arab”. Back in the 1970’s the novel was seen as the ultimate gesture of existentialism, l’acte gratuite. My lecturer in French studies was more sceptical: the heat caused mental confusion; today the situation would be viewed as post-colonialism.
In the land of Oz the crowding on beaches is remarkable: hedonism dispells any tendency to territoriality; people willingly share intimate proximity to enjoy sunlight, sea air and ocean bathing.
Torpor amounts to civilised consciousness deteriorating under the effect of intense heat. Environmentally, the situation is one of Euro white people imposing themselves on the landscape, with the consequence in Oz of a high rate of melanoma.
The combination of fibres I used in this work to depict sand differed from that of Beach #3. Here it amounts to an orange gold synthetic mixed with grey linen, a fragile joy to use. The changes become necessary when amounts of a particular yarn are depleted. These are micro narratives. The hair is woven with a loosely spun, chocolate wool combined with dark brown linen. Yin and yang, soft/hard.
Salute to the Sun (Beach #4). 13.5 cms H X 15.5 cms W. Warp 12/45 cotton, 8 pr in; wool, linen, cotton, synthetic wefts. An ironic quoting of a yoga sequence, nevertheless, yogis made use of sunbathing, venerating the powers of fresh air and sunlight as do western beachgoers. The facial elements have been reduced to a mere silhouette, echoing the anonymity of beach hedonism. The colours of the ocean oscillate from sparkling foam, light, almost transparent water to blue/green shadowy depths. The touches of colour are not so much staccato as undulating gestures.
Originally, I had in mind, two figures together, both in silhouette; the one shown here was on the left. I had intended them for a larger loom, even drawing by grid the exact size of the intended cartoon. Then, on impulse, I warped up a smaller loom, my travel companion, (on trains persons asking: “how long does it take to complete?”).
I began the weaving of this small version but became distracted by an exciting other project for the larger loom. I had abandoned this work but returned to it yesterday, under the influence of liquorice tea, recommended for the reluctant weaver, and the blood thumping music of Nirvana. I now realise that both figures wore parallel postures; this one, however, had the extra interest of the hand to brow gesture, while his companion had both arms trailing underwater, a difficult concept to express.
I have just experienced my contribution to the 2019 GLBTIQ Mardi Gras: it’s a 4 vol DVD set, Alan Bennett at the BBC. Bennett is a much loved screen writer in the UK, out gay. This particular disc, A Question of Attribution is about the belated outing of the fourth spy in the Burgess, Philby and Maclean Cambridge group. He is Sir Anthony Blount, working at the Courtauld Institute, and caretaker of the Royal Art Collection. As Blount wryly says, it is not so much a collection as an accumulation. His role is played by James Fox, while Prunella Scales delivers an admirable version of HMQ. One is reminded of Helen Mirren in the movie the Queen.
In real life Mag once went downstairs to get some help, only to find the below stairs male staff enjoying a drag party with one of her servants impersonating her. The royal retort was: “far too many queens in this palace”. Or words to that effect. Bennett’s version comes in the midst of a discussion HMQ has with Blount about royal portraits; she says that had Bacon, who painted screaming popes, been chosen she would have been depicted as the screaming queen.
What follows is an elaborately extended metaphor about image, identity, forgery, enigma; Blount discuses a painting in the royal collection while HMQ is saying in code: “I know you are a spy and a traitor.”
Enough spoiler alerts, though. The play is full of gay references. It showed a time when to be gay and arrested in flagrante delicto meant imprisonment and electric shock treatment, so called. Gays then and now share a culture that was/is subversive. At the top of the intellectual ladder this translated into spying for the enemy, communists.
On ABC Radio ages ago, there was a discussion about two contrasting poems; Peter Porter’s On First Looking into Chapman’s Hesiod and Les Murray’s The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle. Porter, who grew up in Australia and moved to London, wrote of leaving Australia, exchanging it for a cultured, urban life. A place where culture thrives and rustic machismo dare not intrude. By contrast, Murray is a ruddy-faced, typically country bloke. His thesis is that the country sustains a culture where neighbours look after each other, where everyone gets along.
I have just finished the first of three novellas in Acts of Love by Jon Lonie. After I first read the volume I managed to meet the author and wove his portrait, which I must exhume from my collection of photos on cd. It was about a gifted, gay youth who grows up in southern Qld during the era of Premier Danish/NZ Bjelke_Peterson. BP molded public government into blatant political indifference, for instance calling press conferences “feeding the chooks”.
At this time I had already moved to Sydney where I was living but looked north to BP’s regime as if I were a type of cultural refugee, determined never to return. How could you live with such a betrayal of democracy? How could you accept that your fellow Qlders had allowed it to happen, okay, on 20% of the state vote. The punchline of Lonie’s work was that if you grew up in a Qld country town which found out that you were a “poofta” the only solution was to move to Sydney. I had done this years earlier.
At the end of high school I joined the local council gang that was put to work digging canals or drains with mattocks. The gruff males terrified me; I felt them constantly criticising me and wondered if that would at any time turn to violence. We used mattocks for our work. The practised hacks of the trade used an overhand swing so that the force of gravity was enough to break the ground. By contrast, I used little “nibbles” which one of the gang scornfully described as Chinaman’s gardening.
We were working at a particularly beautiful town Finch Hatton. In this week’s Fake or Fortune show I discovered that the original FH is in Scotland. The roadside where we worked was overshadowed by Babylonian hanging gardens, vines and rainforests. The men would stop work from time to time and roll a ciggie. I took those moments to grab a scrap of paper from my pocket and scribble a line or phrase which I later combined as poems. Please forgive the transliteration of a country accent but the foreman of the gang would ask about the “lidas” (letters) I was writing. As a non smoker I thought I was entitled to equal time.
I had begun to write poems in mid high school and thought that a university degree based on my favourite activity would be a positive outcome. Had there been a more insightful guide, they would have noted my creativity, both visual and verbal, and advised me to get into art school, However, as John Lennon wrote, life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans. So, I came to live in Australia’s first and largest city, a vast, anonymous, fostering space especially for gays.
My starting point for this series was seeing at the Courtauld Galleries in London Seurat’s Bathing at Aznieres. Not only was the large completed work on display but a roomful of A4 size sketches. Possibly something not possible in its Australian equivalent was the fact that le tout Paris was enjoying itself on the banks of the river. People in all types and stages of dress and undress.
The Australian mode is to pack an esky and towels; find a space at a comfortable distance from beachside neighbours. As usual with every other aspect of Australian life we have not referred this experience to First Nation people. A typical beach would have rips or currents that might drag the swimmer into deeper water; likewise, sharks are a constant possibility. Have we asked indigenous people about the benefits and perils of sunbathing; did they even do it? Did they get sunburnt? Meanwhile, Euro-Australians have the highest rate of skin cancer in the world.
My work is 41 cms H X 54 cms W; 12/45 seine cotton warps 8 per in; linen, wool and cotton wefts. The blend used to describe the expanse of sand is yellow, fine strands of wool plus ecru crochet cotton. Forgive the unfinished look of the work.
One realisation that came from this work is that the inherent characteristics of a medium are best made use of overtly. For drawing the drag marks and smudges of charcoal; with painting the smears and pointillist brushstrokes. As far as tapestry is concerned there is a prevalent habit of stepping up through an area of blank colour alongside another area of greater detail. It enables the weaver to power through the blank area not quite mindlessly but more quickly than otherwise. Of course, two adjacent blank areas allow for a double or pyramidal stepping. Saqqara!!! This trick of the craft was to be seen in the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries; there it was applied seemingly insouciantly. In my work the weave type certainly progressed the rate of my weaving; however, halfway through the work I realised that it had contributed a characteristic of inhabited beaches: that of shoe marks and footprints. The near invisibility of the marks gave them their importance on the scale of things, no separate, distinct colour.
Usually I do not place the central figure in a large space; here it is necessary to emphasise the concept of terra nullius that we as Euro-Australians have inherited from our colonial history.
The three figures I have woven in this sunbather series are all males; I have been commissioned on two occasions to create images of women; at other times I have depicted my mother. But, as a rule, I feel considerations of cultural appropriation apply.
Am reading a volume of travel accounts by Evelyn Waugh; curiously they are as frantic and madcap as his novels. But I did a summer cleanout of some of my books last night; I found two (2!) copies of A Handful of Dust; in the intro Waugh writes that, for him, writing is about the exercise of language, not reality, not history, not psychology. Oscar Wilde said it decades earlier, “the subject of art is art itself”, or words to that effect. I feel this gave him the springboard to conclude that he gave talent to his creativity but genius to his life.
In his poem, Sailing to Byzantium, WB Yeats wrote of “artifice”. It’s a timely reminder from three greats that art is not a commentary, an exalted interpretation of world events, but an exercise of culture, the scribe/monk seated at a desk in a pavilion of the solitary garden, using brushes as a meditation of calligraphy.
Likewise, my tapestry, my textile concerns: not a capture of images of social history. Just art. So, much as I admire historical images or social realist ones, abstract expressionism for me.