Laura Gascoigne: Tangled Web – September 2017

“Why is there so much sewing?” demanded The Art Newspaper’s Christina Ruiz after visiting Christine Macel’s exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale. “I get it: domestic work, women’s work, is important and undervalued. But is it in itself art? No it is not.”

There was a time when so-called textile arts were prized above all others; when first unveiled in 1519, Raphael’s tapestries for the Sistine Chapel threatened to 400 Bad Request eclipse the fame of Michelangelo’s ceiling. But in the 18th century tapestry began to feel fusty as audiences warmed to the immediacy of paint. A work’s value no longer resided in the price of the wool, the skill of the weavers, the total hours spent in production and associated cost, but in the artist’s touch, the signature of authenticity that connected audiences with the creator of the work, usually male.

In the 1980s, when Rozsika Parker wrote The Subversive Stitch, she pinpointed “the separation of the craft of embroidery from the fine arts” as “a major force in the marginalisation of women’s work”. But on the coattails of conceptualism, ‘women’s work’ has come back from the margins. Since the personal signature of the pen or brush fell under suspicion the needle has returned, not always in the hands of women. While the women are bent over their embroidery frames, the men are stealing the limelight, à la Raphael, with tapestries woven by others to their designs. Chris Ofili’s Weaving Magic has just been the focus of an exhibition at the National Gallery, and there are more tapestries than pots in Grayson Perry’s The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! at the Serpentine Gallery (until September 10th).

If Hockney wants to keep his place as top national treasure, he’d better put down his iPad and pick up a needle. Tapestry, embroidery, knitting, crocheting are all back in the frame and proving highly popular with a public tired of the self-conscious cack-handedness of so much contemporary art. This is art like granny used to make, sweet as apple pie and absolved of the obligation to be serious. From Vidya Gastaldon & Jean-Michel Wicker’s knitted octopus, titled Sex Is Good (1999), shown in Tate St Ives 2013 exhibition Aquatopia to Shauna Richardson’s three 9m lions, crocheted from 36 miles of Swaledale wool and displayed in a glass cage at Twycross Zoo in 2012 as part of the Cultural Olympiad, it’s all a bit of folksy fun.

Naturally, education departments love it. Imagine the jollity at The Exchange in Newlyn in 2010 when artist Jonty Lees donned a Montgolfier flying helmet and goggles to lead a sewing circle and basket-weaving group in the construction of a full-size hot air balloon. The following year the Science Museum went one better and got participants in its Stitched Science weekend to create an entire Solar System Art Installation from ‘various fibre arts’. True, the results looked a bit of a mess, but sew what? Fibre arts have therapeutic benefits. According to the organisers of the Crafts Council’s ‘cinema knit-along events’ in 2012, “knitting has been proven to enhance cognitive development in children, and well-being in both children and adults.” Sew there.

It’s not all child’s play: serious issues can be addressed with needles. ‘Political statement knits’ by Lisa Anne Auerbach were a highlight of Wasteland, an exhibition of young Los Angelino artists at the Mona Bismarck American Centre in Paris last year. More ambitiously, at the Minories Gallery, Colchester in 2015 Clare Sams’s installation Knitting Fever recreated the devastation caused by the 2009 floods when a wool shop of that name in Cockermouth spilled its guts through the Cumbrian town. The gallery complimented the artist on using a process “stereotypically viewed as a feminine past-time [sic]” to represent “cataclysmic forces not normally associated with the practice”. Sams’ ‘total knitted environment’ looked a little twee for a cataclysm – acts of God produce more dramatic results than needlework – but she wasn’t going to let that stop her, having already knitted her way

through the Hackney Riots and Guantanamo Bay. No knit-wit she.

Other artist-knitters are not so outward-looking or gender-neutral in their choice of subjects. Given the vogue for ‘bedroom painting’, bedroom knitting was almost bound to follow and, sure enough, in 2012 the Polish-born New Yorker Agata Olek transformed Tony’s Gallery in Brick Lane into a crocheted replica of her boudoir, with walls

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and floor emblazoned with explicit texts from former lovers. “It is not just another apartment installation,” she assured Metro, “it is the reflection of life, love, trust and lust in current time.” Its tear-jerking title I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone was a quote from, you’ve guessed it, the queen of the misery stitchers, Tracey Emin. But no artist has taken intimate needlework quite so far as Casey Jenkins in her 2013 performance Casting Off My Womb, in which she knitted a menstrual cycle-length scarf from skeins of wool secreted in her fanny. The work, she told The Guardian, was “primarily about casting off the need for validation from external sources” and “forging a path of self-determination in the face of society’s expectations”.

Maria Balshaw would say aye to that. Unlike Christina Ruiz, she congratulated Venice Biennale curator Christine Macel in The Art Newspaper on doing “a really good job in challenging some of the gender stereotypes around textiles,” singling out male artist David Medalla for praise for his participatory work A Stitch in Time, first shown in 1968. Medalla’s early lead in removing the sexual stigma from stitching may have laid the ground for the Crafts Council’s 2004 exhibition Boys Who Sew, at which Fernando Penteado established the butch credentials of needlework with a display of samplers embroidered by tattooed inmates of Wandsworth Prison. Since then the social enterprise Fine Cell Work has climbed on the prison wagon and trained 300 prisoners in 20 gaols to spend their lock-up time productively embroidering cushion covers. There’s precious little bunce in it for the lags, but more job satisfaction than stitching mailbags.

It’s no discovery that men are nimble-fingered (not a lot of people know this, but the young Malevich upset his father with his unhealthy aptitude for Ukrainian cross-stitch). The danger for women of challenging gender stereotypes around textiles is that male artists will seize the initiative. Not content with getting tapestries woven to their designs, brothers are doing it for themselves. In Art Now at Tate Britain in 2010 Andy Holden showed The Pyramid Piece, a 10ft-high knitted replica of a chip off the Great Pyramid of Cheops that he had illegally smuggled home from a family holiday to Egypt at the age of 12. Along with its benefits for cognitive development, knitting is obviously a good way of assuaging guilt.

The main drawback of needlework, for unreconstructed individualists, is its inflexibility as a means of expression, which is why most attempts to employ it as one, Tracey Emin’s included, have been sew-so. The notable exception is Mr and Mrs Pope, Knitted, Shrunk and Hung (2012), a truly heart-wringing piece of work that – sorry girls! – was created by a male sculptor, Nicholas Pope, with his own fair hands.

Laura Gascoigne
The Jackdaw Sept/Oct 2017