In the first in a series of Art Guide Australia articles which turn the spotlight on the use of textile techniques in contemporary art, Rebecca Shanahan examines the rise of interest in weaving by taking a close look at the work of Broken Hill-based artist Blake Griffiths.
The art world’s renewed interest in modernism has provided new ways of looking at, and thinking about, textiles. The recent Tate Modern retrospective of Bauhaus/Black Mountain College artist Anni Albers brought her innovative weavings to new audiences. The celebrated artist Sheila Hicks, whose early meeting with Albers spurred her to move from painting to weaving, is also enjoying a renaissance as an octogenarian. With a career beginning in the 1950s, Hicks is a living artist whose oeuvre spans modernism, postmodernism and the contemporary.
Whether a textile work takes the abstract form inherent to weaving, or is part of the representational history of textiles, or lies in the field of non-loom weaving, a heightened consideration of materials is at its core. While painting classically shrouds its woven canvas support with pigment, fibre constitutes both image and object in a textile work. In a present in which much of our somatic experience occurs via fingers on slippery glass screens, and an ecologically-sound circular economy currently remains beyond our grasp, textile art can give us some purchase on meaning through materials.
Close attention to materials and their expressive significance resonates in the work of textile artist Blake Griffiths. His exhibition Finding Balance at Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery is rooted in place. “There are incredible stories of people who make do and have made beautiful livelihoods in this almost inhospitable place,” say Griffiths. “Being in this environment has allowed me space to mirror that in my practice. People are really receptive to the rearrangement of materials to make something else. Continuing these ancient traditions of manipulating materials is inspiring.”
Griffiths has been in Broken Hill about four years. “My practice is about using what’s around me,” he explains. “There are lots of emu feathers. There’s a crown made from fish skin. I’m using kangaroo fur and leather.”
It’s no coincidence that a kangaroo and emu appear on the Australian coat of arms. “It’s nationalistic,” says Griffiths. “Imbalances in our society are represented through what I’ve used for the weft [the width wise component of a weaving]. The emu feathers were from an environmental disaster that happened out here when they were building the pipeline, and the fish leather came from the Murray-Darling fish kill. I’m using commercial kangaroo skin to question the idea of farming as a kind of societal imbalance. But to make an evenly tensioned cloth, I have to weave this imbalance in a way that balances it through my choice of warp [the lengthwise component of a weaving]. The warp is an analogy for a more spiritual, interconnected, pre-existing force. I’m interested in the conversations that can come out of that duality between the two.”
“There’s a series of works made from digitally printed fabrics that are shredded and rewoven.” As Griffiths points out, “The origin of the computer is Jacquard looms – weaving informs the development of the computer.”
There is also a work made in response to, and exhibited alongside, a blanket belonging to the artist’s grandfather. Heavily patched and reworked during World War II, Griffiths views the repetitive, nonessential stitch-work of the blanket as evidence of his grandfather’s self-directed therapy. “I’ve rewoven the blanket like a ghost textile using plastic, thinking about war and trauma, and also thinking about the trauma of our time; the idea of sustainability almost overshadowing these personal histories.”
“If you’re making a cloth, you’ve touched every centimetre of that entire cloth. I like that I’m connected to a global historical practice when I’m doing that.”