The Silence which Howls

Exhibition review Second Look: Prospect Textile Biennial Prospect Gallery 14 April - 5 May 1996

Surveys have shown that some form of textile involvement is the most highly practised form of personal or artistic expression within the community. Directors of the Prospect Gallery in Adelaide intend, therefore, to pursue textiles as an ongoing focus for the Gallery's regular exhibition programme. A growing body of theoretical writing about domestic craft versus art has emerged in recent times, especially in the area of textiles. This exhibition offered a "second look" at the whole issue.

Curator Sue Rosenthal invited sixteen unashamed textile artists to present two works - one which originates in the commonplace or familiar (a photograph, drawing, fragment, object etc) and another produced as a response or linkage to it. Artists were thus compelled to explore the arena of textile identity within current art practice. Responses were varied, including pieces where "textile" was defined as a means of working rather than the nature or result of the materials used.

It was invigorating to see members of the public fully engaged and actively discussing work in the gallery and at a lively discussion later, with artists Sara Lindsay, Ruth Hadlow, Helen Sanderson and Ian Arcus, who spoke about their work practice and processes.
This exhibition reminded me of Michael Radford's film Il Postino (The Postman). In an utterly banal succession of day to day commonplaces in a 'cultural desert' the postman encounters the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The local innkeeper berates Neruda for irresponsibly equipping the hitherto negligible postman with a dangerous and effective weapon which he uses to great effect on the innkeeper's niece. The evil tool? The metaphor.

It is precisely the power of the metaphor which appropriates and transforms the banal, the hitherto invisible, into something with a different purpose, something new. It is this power which resides in the textile and has been recognised by visual artists who disclaim the association with textiles generically.

Liz Jeneid demonstrates this in her piece What is there is not always what you see, in which ten wooden boxes conceal/reveal ambiguous menacing photographic images behind woven wooden blinds. The long tradition of the invisibility of women' s work and creative processes adds potency to the idea of a 'space', or absence with power.

Ellena Gallegos' Entrevidas: Between Lives negotiates this idea of bounded space which can be breached. Her two pieces are linked by cutout metal images of Minerva (Athena). The analogy of a person's life span with a 'thread' is apt here. Weaving was the special province of Athena, whose fame as inventor of the cultivated olive, patron of cloth making, goddess of war etc represents, according to Elizabeth Wayland Barber, perhaps everything that human skill and knowhow (from the Greek can accomplish. If one's lifespan was formed by the Fates at birth, the act of weaving symbolised what one did with that life; the choices of the individual.
Ian Arcus' work Self Portrait Times Three afforded a piquant juxtaposition of tekhne/textile/timespan where the rigid format of his experimental technical processes was used to speak of the intangible space between then and now. Elsje King captured this delicate tracery of process paradoxically in traditional log cabin patchwork of fine, hand-dyed, transparent filmy fabrics. Tony Dyer used the preschool felt board to refer to the dualism of textiles in the art arena. The 'silence'/invisibility/pre literacy of this 'textile world' contrasted with the raggedly felted, clash of incompatible suburban discourses, multiple definitions of self and other, where no edges are straight, no colours unadulterated.

Kylie Nadin's double-cloth Self Portrait and Sara Lindsay's woven tapestry Roundedness of Return weave together the subconscious and physical experience; ambiguities of who we are and the migrant's search for belonging. What lies beneath the surface in black and white is a visible energy always on the verge of speaking about something opposite. For Trish Little's Embroidery with Zips, 'embroidery' is appropriated to speak of internal energies of a different kind. She quotes Collette, speaking of her daughter: " I don't much like my daughter sewing; she is silent when she sews, with her mouth firmly closed, concealing her large new-cut incisors that bite into the moist heart of fruit like little saw-edged blades. She is silent, and she - why not write down the word that frightens me- she is thinking."

Ruth Hadlow's hand-worked fragments Pipe Dreams threatened at any moment to break out of its domestic environment, unlike Helen Sanderson's Women's Quilt. Questionnaires she sent to two hundred women artist/administrators were layered/laid out under plastic and carried much more metaphorical weight as a 'quilt' than her painted and collaged piece, which remained more a simile than a metaphor.
Liz Williamson's Darn, (200cm x 50cm) positioned next to an impeccably darned fragment from the Powerhouse, one reviewer called "nearly a case of the hole being bigger than the bucket". This is surely the strength of this piece. The darn speaks of a silence which 'howls', a void which is full, a timespan arrested and full of unspoken potential.