my textile career from 1975
Recently, off the coast of Palestine, a fisherman threw his net into the water and hauled in a bronze sculpture of Apollo, his hand extended in a gesture of bestowing blessings and gifts, fit for a temple. In 2015 I created a large button work of the image framed with small woven tapestry images of smurfs. On the quilt of smurfs was where the fisherman had placed the wonderful work prior to its disappearance through the tunnels that honeycomb the West Bank, presumably to fund Hamas and its struggle for independence from Israeli control. My button work hung with several other button embroideries, alongside the work of twelve other artists, in a show called More Love Hours curated by the wonderful Suzette Wearne of the Ian Potter Museum, in the University of Melbourne. Suze is now the proud mother of a baby girl Sylvia: “Who is Sylvia, who is she, that all the swains commend her?”
Apollo Emerged, just completed, is woven tapestry, 13 cms H X W, 8 cotton warps per in. Its wefts are wool, cotton, linen and synthetic.
I have been a follower of the ancient deity since my visit, decades ago, to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. There, I stood spellbound in front of a bronze Apollo, that, like the above work, had been submerged off Piraeus harbour, just outside the city of Athens. This work is a convincing argument against that commandment that museum curators follow, that works must be displayed at eye level. The Apollo had obviously lived on a temple plinth, bestowing munificence to his followers. Here, he looked down, seemingly, inappropriately downcast. But when I crouched on the floor and looked into his face it wore a most awe-inspiring expression.
Apollo is of course a god for gay men; his lovers were numerous. My only problem is his seeming carelessness with their mortality. Perhaps he wanted them close to him at a higher level of immortality? He had women lovers too. In the ancient world I went in search of gay role models; it’s never too late. Apart from David and Jonathan of the old testament, there was Jesus with John, his favourite follower, who leant against his torso during the last supper. Alexander the Great plus all the famous couples of legend and antiquity.
When Sydney was celebrating its Olympic games Athens’ Benaki museum, home of some exquisitely sophisticated mauve ikons, sent us an exhibition of Greek artefacts, including a bas relief of an Athenian citizen together with his underage lover; the two were clearly enamoured of each other, though what was shocking was the sculptor’s very accurate, practically prurient depiction of his extreme youth.
In the National Archaeological but un-air-conditioned museum of Bangkok were several sculptures of Krishna. Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare hare. They, like the Apollo works, also exuded a benign sexuality. Not for nothing is Krishna called the flute player by India’s gay under class; go figure.
Apollo emerged from water at last, seemingly not his chosen element, nor, surely, would be the basement of a billionaire’s palace where he currently, secretly resides. A small consolation is that Apollo has an amazing resilience and will survive even obscurity. For instance, even in ancient times he had a special relationship with Dionysus, described as his opposite by nineteenth century literary commentators. Recent archaeologists have determined that one of the deities would go on walkabout, and his opposite number would take up residence in the other’s shadowed inner chamber, performing the appropriate functions. Apollo Emerged.
The Leopold Museum, devoted to turn of last century’s art, had on the ground floor an exhibition of Anton Kolig’s work. Not just a painter and teacher of great talent, he was a designer and worked with various organisations in much the same way that Australian painters design works for the Australian Tapestry Workshop to weave. When St Stephen’s Dom, the famous cathedral in the heart of Vienna, was extensively damaged by bombing during WW2 he offered to re-design the enormous stained glass windows. Sadly nothing came of the proposal and today the cathedral walls feature windows of the most bland colours. In the exhibition was a curious piece titled “painted gobelin” for a Salzburg Music Festival; the base fabric was clearly of woven tapestry on which the artist painted his design of Adam and Eve. An interesting image, but how much more effective it would have been if an atelier actually wove it, image and all.
The Hundertwasser House in Vienna is a most interesting experience: visitors are warned to negotiate the undulating paved floors. Many paintings and water colours hung on the walls; but, among them were half a dozen tapestries. One, my favourite, was called Boy Pissing with Skyscrapers; the figure occupies the entire left hand side: his head is turned awkwardly, the golden arc dissects the landscape in front of the city buildings. However, there were several others, none identified by the workshop where they were created. Must we infer from this curatorial neglect that weaving is not considered seriously in a fine arts environment? Another work was woven so that weft ends hung from the image, an interesting effect.
I travelled to Slovenia where traditional lace making, commissioned by the Church, was featured in museum; woven tapestry was nowhere to be seen. The only other textile was in the Skofje Loka Ethnographic Museum: it consisted of prisoner of war uniforms from WW2 concentration camps.
I visited Lake Bled, a beautiful place whose beauty seems to resist any amount of tourist invasion. walking the circumference of the lake, a necessary pilgrimage, was six kilometres and exhausting. On the shore, below my hotel, a gallery was advertising its show of works by Salvadore Dali, not necessarily my artist of choice. However, I checked it out as woven tapestries were supposed to be on display. Indeed there were three, again without an atelier specified, part of a series of twelve, celebrating the Twelve Tribes of Israel. They were interesting, finely woven, designed in the artist’s well known spidery style.
Only a three week trip but it felt packed with visual experiences. Bled had two villas named Julia and Alice, the two sisters. There were many such quaint and fascinating details. I surprised myself with how competent I was speaking German, always a help in a non-English speaking country.
Part 1: I’ve just returned from three weeks in Vienna and surrounding countries. The art in that imperial capitol as collected by the Hapsburgs is superb, it goes without saying. For instance, in the Kunst Historische Museum a grand marble staircase led you to the first floor, where one wing was filled comprehensively with medieval art. One large room was hung with two woven tapestries, described as originating from a Flemish tapestry workshop, 1629 – 1650. One, titled Lovers in a Bower, showed a servant woman with a pewter jug of wine in one hand, with the other shw offered a Roemer glass to a couple framed deeper within the image (in a garden). The knight is grasping a woman from behind, reaching round to clasp her breast. Both are seen as surprised; the woman perhaps that she has been compromised? The tapestry’s designer was Jacob Jordaens, who employs the chiaroscuro made popular by Carravaggio, in this case the figures are ghastly, made so by candle or torch light? Curiously, in the background a stern, authoritarian older figure rises: (a garden statue representing public morals perhaps?) The border of all such works as a subtext commentary; here, the knight’s sword is placed slanted; above among garden foliage are quivers of arrows and gargoyles.
The other work, a Pastoral Scene, is hung in the same room and shows in the foreground a woman carrying a basket of fruits (grapes and apples); the more pointed subtext of such details remain to be teased out. Behind her is a window through which a man grasps her breast. The border is of gargoyles also. The design is again attributed to Jacob Jordaens, design and woven work from a Brussels workshop c. 1627. One must expect, I suppose, that men commissioned such works, rich men who could afford splendidly finished artefacts containing a degree of erotic content.
An adjacent room contained a work titled Deeds and Triumph of Jaoa de Castro, with elephants. A triumphal procession, in the style of Roman emperors, with two elephants and three rows of prancing buffoons, celebrated the Portuguese conquest of India. The designer obviously consulted eye witness accounts of the event, creating an exotic atmosphere yet with lifelike detail. Most impressively, the designer depicts de Castro and his four generals (?) bottom left as life size figures, creating maximum impact when hung in his palace. Bottom right showed his two ensigns. The border was of floral clusters and cupids; the work was again from a Flemish workshop, c. 1557, earlier by a half century work by a half century than the two previously described. I could have spent an unlimited amount of time noting design similarities and weaving differences. They felt different, if that makes sense. This had a tighter feel to its treatment of detail.
The complete collection of tapestries owned by the museum is about 700 large, doubtless allowing for works to be rotated to spare excessive damage from light.
Matthew Mitcham, 2017, buttons, bottle tops, sewn onto canvas with upholsterer’s thread, 2 ft (81 cms) H X W.
MM won an Olympic gold medal for diving, for Australia. What made him special is that early in his career he came out as gay, thus copping a lot of homophobia in a macho world (all those dressing room moments to protect oneself from). This week, he and another wonderful man, Ian Roberts, a rugby league player, who also told the world he was gay (he was the first Australian rugby player to do so) were interviewed about the nexus between sport and politics, following the announcement by the CEO of the NRL that Macklemore, a US gay rapper, would sing his anthem to same sex marriage at the NRL final. Personally I think the NRL Ceo acted like a Renaissance Borgia, commissioning art in Florence; in his case, getting artists on board before someone decides to make a lone statement was a clever manoeuvre; also he was aiming the event at a younger audience. The players are younger as is the audience and it helps to speak the language of a younger generation. Roberts and Mitcham spoke out as fervent supporters of same sex marriage.
MM was always in the back of my mind, for years; who could fail to be attracted by those elfin looks, the demeanour of a startled fawn. I hope that does not overly objectify. Curiously, the UK also produced a young gay diver. Perhaps it goes with the genre, the acrobatics, the plunge, the accuracy and timing, the need for personal strength but not the burly, hefty dimensions of rugby players. In any case, within the last couple of years I wove five small panels of tapestry, but the centrepiece eluded me. The canvas hung unfinished while I worked on the Golden Tree.
I’d begun with the eyes, then the mouth; however, the latter turned out wrong, too parallel. Recently, I re-examined the canvas. Getting the mouth right was the engine for further progress. I settled on a victory pic; MM wearing the Australian gold Olympic medal.
I looked at a number of photos of MM and settled on a victory pic; MM wearing the Australian green/yellow top (wattle and leaf) and the blue cord from which hung the gold medal. The latter had to be implied. On the right I wanted to suggest the exhilarating depth of the pool, with the demarcated lanes implied. On the right, I placed the audience, abstracted by the representation of columns of eyes (bottle tops containing lustrous buttons in front of pearl shell). Behind them were buttons I intended to suggest the architecture.
I have just completed the yellow of the top today; the sequence was: bits of the face, the green collar, the pale blue ribbon, the shoulder outline of yellow, the water which I particularly enjoyed ( its laneways indicating the water’s turbulence) then completing the face, the audience and architecture, finally the luminous yellow). I especially wanted the yellow material to glow.
I continue to ponder at my choice of this medium; it is after all subject to spontaneous scorn (a Fb posting described one of my works as looking like her button drawer). However, it has a scrawled immediacy, it allows me the possibility of including different materials. In an age where people need to interrogate the narrative of things, people, events, each of my buttons come from a different place. I buy them in tins (which on Ebay seem to be more valued than their contents). In my case I look for multiples of the one pattern or colour that can enable me to create a theme or image.
Finally, as a postscript, I need to clarify why the title of this blog described MM as “flawed”. It’s an inconsequential detail of MM’s life because we all know of his dependance on recreational and other medications. Read Colm Tobin’s sensitive and informative book, Love in a Dark Time, about the horrific plight of gay people when expressing their love resulted in a prison sentence with hard labour. The NO campaigners against same sex marriage might argue that they have been victimised, but the situation of LGBTQI people continues to be difficult. For example, consider how many trans people have been murdered lately. As a community, however, we struggle to better our and our children’s lives. We are on the right side of history and change.
Thank you for your interest in these images. Our shared time has been most valued.
The Golden Tree, just completed but planned during my month of flu, is 32 inches H X 20 inches W. Bottle tops form the eye lashes around buttons which have an ocular translucence; the central stem comprises golden circles while the periphery is silver. I make special use of pearl-shell buttons because, after all, they and the bottle tops, which suggest cowrie shells, are reminders of Polynesian culture which I grew up with in central Qld.
Last year I visited the Stedelijk Museum in the Netherlands which was holding a comprehensive exhibition of Mondriaan’s work of all his periods. Two rooms were filled with his paintings of trees in various colours, steadily becoming more of a mesh of lines and shapes, more abstracted.
Also, recently, I found a scrap of paper on which a young boy, probably the one next door, had written a school exercise. “The tree is a large plant. It has a trunk and branches and leaves.” It reminded me in its innocence of Will Blake’s Songs of Innocence (thou a lamb and I a child, we are called in his name).
For me, the gold represents sunlight on leaf, while the silver is shadow.I wanted to resist any strictly religious interpretation of the work, as the cruciform shape is an archetype that crosses (no pun intended) cultural boundaries.
This was an earlier version, completed years ago, (2005?), more variegated in colour and design, clunkier in texture, but fresh, nonetheless in those blue/brown and silver/gold contrasts. Thank you for your attention.
The above works are approx 30 cms H X W, compared to my recent work in the previous blog which is half their size. The distinctive feature the above works have in common is that adjacent colour areas are left unconnected except by a slit, at some points gaping obviously and unattractively. However, the method is in widespread use, the slits being sewn together as the work progresses, something I have never mastered.
This method enables areas to be woven rapidly; the above work of two men kissing has an exuberant procession of small colour areas that complement or contrast in a dancelike fashion. However, I abandoned this technique to achieve a closely finished surface, seamless, uniform, where adjacent areas overlapped in a hounds tooth? pattern. Because of the slowness of weaving method I prefer to limit the size of the work to half that of previous works, that is, 16 cms H X W. What is foremost in my mind is the unpleasant memory of works previously abandoned, because the vigour of the original idea had dried up.
Inspiration is like a bubble which, as an artist, I feel I have to protect. One superstition I nurture is not discussing a work in progress. This was tricky for instance when the supervisor of my Master’s of Arts at the College of Fine Arts in 2001 would ask me about “work in progress”. What was I working on now, what was my current activity? Instead, I would steer the conversation to my most recently completed work, hoping that my supervisor did not feel left out of the loop, when she was really only doing what was required of her.
So, the smaller work, even if it is woven by a more laborious method only needs to be visited a handful of times on the loom before it is completed. Lately, as the end is in sight a rush of energy seems to accompany the weaving; the finish can’t come soon enough. I wonder if my colleagues and fellow artists feel the same in their art practice?
Lopsided portrait, just completed, 8 cotton warps per in, cotton, synthetic, linen wefts, approx. 3 DMC strands forming one weft. 16 cms H X W. A small sized work but thereby having its advantages. I weave such a small work on a small metal framed loom, 22 cms H X 20 cms W. The advantage is that the work is able to involve all the necessary energy in the shortest time. It might well be considered the postage stamp sized woven tapestry.
As for the subject matter, portraiture has been my area of interest lately; “tapestry as cinema” dealt with different focii of the same image, much as a movie camera might show the actor from different sides or distances. Here, I wanted just to show a face using columns and lines and geometrical areas of colour. Thank you.
All art aspires to the condition of the most complexly manipulated image of the artist’s age, in my case cinema, or more specifically the rock clip. Here, images are posed and manipulated and overlaid with music. Here, I wanted to take the development of an image I had worked years earlier, and with a different technique of attaching adjacent areas (currently I use a hound’s tooth mode to achieve the look of a finished cloth, without seams. Recently, I was looking at a Pasolini film score and noticed the distinctive notation. Accordingly, I decided on the first image as WS (wide shot) and images 2 and 3 as CU (closeup) 1 and 2.
The tapestry exercise I set myself had distinct parameters: my small loom, built from a luggage wheelie, with corks to blunt the sharp ends; on the loom I was able to weave works of 16 cms H X W. Ebay had recently informed me there were several packets of Egyptian embroidery cottons for sale. I bought some; using a cotton warp spacing of 8 per in, I wove the cotton threads three per shed. only occasionally was there a problem as some of the threads were slightly thicker than others.
The first piece reminded me of the violently colourful works by Dutch Cobra painter Appel, that I had seen in the Netherlands last year. The second was in praise of Jawlensky, whom I greatly admire for his use of slightly abstracted form; he represents that moment when post impressionist painters are becoming aware of the exciting potential of abstraction and mechanical invention. They would later have taken their cue from Le Corbusier when he said “A house is only a machine for living in”. “Une maison est une machine a habiter”.
All three works were completed in April, May of 2017, The cotton warp is 8 per in, the weft is cotton.