Sunday, April 25, 2010


Feeling read-y?  A friend sent me this link to a Germaine Greer article the Guardian from back in 2007 where she questions patchwork as art.  I remember reading it back then but all I could do was sigh at her viewpoint.  Of course I do not agree, but I thought it was worth dragging back after letting it ferment for a few years.

Making pictures from strips of cloth isn't art at all - but it mocks art's pretentions to the core

On August 4, an exhibition of patchwork by Edrica Huws opened in the primary school at Llangefni, on Anglesey, possibly the most inaccessible art-venue in the British Isles. I had meant to make the 12-hour journey from east to west and back again in honour of Edrica, who was once very kind to me, and gave me an unfinished watercolour flower piece by her aunt, Ursula Tyrwhitt, who was at the Slade School of Fine Art with Gwen John, Gwen Salmond, Edna Clarke Hall and co. The flower piece, which Tyrwhitt abandoned when the composition went wonky, now straightened up as well as may be in the framing, hangs in my breakfast room to this day. Perhaps, if I went to Anglesey, I would find the answer to the perennial question why any woman would set about to make a portable artwork, a picture, out of bits of old fabric?
What could be the point of such an exercise in futility? The work of art is supposed to defy time but fabric is bound to fade and rot, even when it is kept in between layers of tissue paper and shut away from sight. There's nothing new in this kind of heroic pointlessness; women have frittered their lives away stitching things for which there is no demand ever since vicarious leisure was invented. Mrs Delaney was spending hours of concentration making effigies of flowers out of bits of coloured paper mounted on black card as long ago as 1771. Why didn't she just paint them? You can see her paper mosaics in the Enlightenment gallery of the British Museum, if you insist, but be warned. You could end up profoundly depressed by yet more evidence that, for centuries, women have been kept busy wasting their time.
It is really difficult to make a picture out of scraps of printed cloth. It is not in the least difficult to buy a kit with pre-cut colour-coordinated scraps and toil away at ironing the pieces round the paper cut-outs, pressing their faces together, stitching them from behind and ironing them flat, until you've recreated the quilt in the illustration, but even then you can't read or watch telly or even think while you're doing it. There was a time when women made patchworks together, in quilting bees, and chatted as they worked. The materials were worn-out clothing and aprons; the pattern was a variant on a stock pattern, learned from the older women and modified to fit the circumstances. Such quilts are dignified, dense and often very beautiful objects. They have no pretensions to being works of art, or had none until some impious philistine decided to stretch them flat and hang them on walls. The same thing happened to the Navajo blanket. Taut against the walls of the Whitney museum, the lightning blankets that used to flash and flicker on the plains are dead as shot crows on a fence.
Edrica Huws, born in 1907, spent two years at the Chelsea School of Art, gained a diploma from the Royal College of Art, and worked as an artist until she married the Welsh sculptor Richard Huws in 1931. Five children later, and living in rural Anglesey with neither electricity nor running water, she turned her hand to poetry and began collecting fabrics for her patchwork. She was 51 when she began her first patchwork picture of a greenhouse. It took her a year. The challenge was in getting the assemblage of differently figured pieces to look like a representation of her subject, but not too like it. The scraps had to be treated like scraps, not like paint, or mosaic. Edrica said herself in a lecture in 1982 that to her "the essence of an aesthetic experience" was "the control just winning".
What this suggests is that for Edrica, as for many other women artists, the art activity was haptic, like dancing, say, which may leave a pattern in the sand but the pattern is not the point. She chose to interpret visual subjects in fabric because she liked doing it. As she said of her setting out: "I decided that if I were to finish [the work], it must be representational; anything else would either be beyond my powers or would bore me." As soon as the riddle was solved, and the fabric assembly had come together, looking as like the subject as she wished but no more, she was uninterested in it. She enjoyed this laborious and tricky process as she did not enjoy painting.
Other patchworkers have said that paint is too cold and wet; fabric is warm, tactile and surprising. Patchworkers do not work at the vertical, but engage with their pieces from outside in or inside out. Edrica said that she was never 
sure, working from back to front and back again, which way she was going. By making her cloth pictures Edrica was, consciously or unconsciously, subverting art, mocking its pretensions. Hers are pictures that refuse to be seen, that cannot be hung. Edrica Huws might be surprised to find herself shoulder to shoulder with Tracey Emin, whose untidily sewn tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95, sadly destroyed in the Momart fire, is in the same self-mocking tradition.
Here are two of Edrica Huws quilts I found with a google search:
'pointless?'  'unhangable?'  'mocking art?'  

'frittered time?'

Oh geesh, I sure hope Greer is wrong or these last 30 years of mine (and probably yours too if you're reading this!) have been pointless too.

Some of you may have noticed a new geo-counter in the right hand column.  I am not so sure I will keep it because it's pretty distracting, but I find it quite amazing that visitors are coming from so many different places and I do like the visual reminder that we are so global.  I only wish people would comment once in awhile.  I don't bite.  Maybe what I do does though...  Oh well, I'm not as bad as Germaine.


Abigail Thomas said...

I remember reading this article before. Coming from an art background what she says really jars with me. It's like she is completely discounting a whole genre of art. Its like saying "Wooden sculpture isn't art because its wood and wood should only be functional."

Terry said...

Edrica Huws' quilts are quite exciting to me, so I was doubly depressed by Germaine Greer's article. It might have made sense if she'd been to see work by--no, no I won't mention names. I tell myself that Greer lives to provoke and is probably not much attuned to art in general, but there is a grain of something in what she says that annoys and makes me question myself. Phooey. Thanks (not) for the reminder!

Linda Branch Dunn said...

Haptic is a new word for me. I like it. The second half of the essay belies the slap-in-your-face opening. Annie Dillard loves verbs; quilters love fabric. The medium chooses the artist.

There are gems of truth embedded in the art-speak. Geer is an essayist; her job is argue a point and start discussions. If her essay gets you going, it worked.