“You constantly read about the revival of craft and textiles, but they’ve never gone away,” says artist Vita Cochran. “They’ve always been there.”
Cochran’s artwork embroidery practice, 2021, is one of 53 small-scale works in Text Tile at CAVES gallery. Co-curated by three Melbourne artists, Tia Ansell, Madeline Simm and Anna Fiedler, the exhibition brings together over 50 Australian and New Zealand artists who sustain evolving discussions around the medium. “We wanted to open it up as much as possible and expand that way of thinking about textiles,” says Fiedler.
As artists, the curators wanted to showcase the communities around them and explore common interests. Like Fiedler says, “All three of us work in fabrics or textiles in some way, but also paint too.” Nuanced connections between painting and textiles are surveyed, alongside a vast range of exciting approaches to the medium.
Text Tile is not alone. An expanded idea of textiles has also featured in several recent exhibitions across the country, including Pliable Planes at UNSW Galleries, In the Fibre of Her Being at Fairfield City Museum and Gallery, Long Water: Fibre Stories at the Institute of Modern Art, and Craftivism at Shepparton Art Museum—to name just a few.
Cochran suggests these exhibitions might be developing from the international reappraisal of women in art history, and points to major surveys of artists like Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Sonia Delaunay, famous for their use of textiles. Another factor is simply that textiles are an “intimate medium” that we all understand. As she says, “We are all wearing clothes. We’re all touching fabric all the time. It’s got that immediacy for people.”
Fiedler adds, “Wherever you go, weaving is embedded in history. We’re all connected to it in some way.” This sense of history is central to Text Tile, exploring how culture and information can be held in materials and techniques. For example, Kathryn Tsui’s weavings repeat the tartan of cheap carry bags, a pattern that has travelled the world, while Katie West is known for a dyeing practice that steeps fabrics in story, place and Country.
Daegan Wells has made a weaving, Birds, 2021, from animal fibres and gizzard stones collected around his home on New Zealand’s South Island. The work is a type of documentation, capturing “the materials and feel of this place, and the skills and techniques I have been taught since moving here,” he says.
In tribute to community, the curators have included artists at varying levels of experience—and Camille Laddawan is exhibiting for the first time. Her work Ref., 2022, is made from 52,000 gold beads with tonal patterns encoding private meanings and poetry.
Text Tile also presents artists who’ve been working with the medium for decades, including Kathy Temin, Anne-Marie May and Louise Weaver. Weaver’s work, Hoopoe (shroud for painting), 1994/2019, was made at a time when the art world was fixed on the death of painting. It’s a brown cloth with a stain-like image of a Hoopoe bird, once associated with invisibility. “I imagined that an image of the Hoopoe could both protect and camouflage an unseen painting. The death of one painting as a stand-in for the end of all painting,” says Weaver. “The connections between textiles, painting and abstraction have been areas I have explored throughout my career.”
There are connections between textiles and abstraction for Melinda Harper too. She started working with embroidery in 2007, as part of a collaborative exhibition with Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley. “At the time, I had small children and it was quite good because you could just put it down and pick it up,” she says of embroidery. She enjoyed the meditative process, and the space to consider colour. “My paintings take a long time too, but I do like that time factor,” she says.
For exhibiting artist Sarah crowEST, painting and textiles haven’t always sat so comfortably. In the 1980s and 1990s, her work was being exhibited in the “craft arena, even though I was more interested in contemporary art and ideas,” she says. “Eventually my frustration with that ‘textiles ghetto’ pushed me to return to painting and other media.”
Painting remains her “greatest love” though textiles have circled back into her practice. She has made needlepoints and wearable, strap-on paintings, which developed out of an interest in Sophie Taeuber-Arp and lost architectures. Gleaming Mound, 2021, her needlepoint in Text Tile, suggests Neolithic standing stones and unreadable glyphs.
CrowEST says it’s been stimulating to see expanding dialogues around textiles, and approaches that are “not craft-based and often deskilled from that point of view”. In 2016, she conceived the influential group exhibition Fabrik (curated by Jane O’Neill) looking at minimalist and conceptual approaches to textiles. In 2017, her textile work also featured in Heide’s major exhibition Avant-Garde: Constructivism and Australian Art.
For her part in Text Tile, Cochran has a deep appreciation of the “rich field” of embroidery and its history, and a playful awareness of the tangled histories of art and craft. She’s currently making abstract works from unpicked or “exploded” clothing, harking back to modernists like Delaunay, and resourceful early quilters. She has also recreated rugs from famous modernist paintings. “A lot of those modernist artists got so much inspiration from the world of textiles,” she says, pointing to Matisse as just one example. “Those hierarchies… about painting being the serious, more enduring medium, and textiles being peripheral—are really intertwined.”