Below is my study of three artists to complete module 6. Where possible, I have included in the text links to websites where you can see the pieces of work I have referred to in the essay. However, there were a couple that I could not find online, so I have scanned in some postcards and part of a magzine. There are plenty of other images online; see the list of references for the artists’ own websites.
Textile Art and Digital Technology
Throughout this course, I have been experimenting with the use of digital technology as a means of designing and creating stitched textiles, so for this final essay I want to look at three artists who use digital design in their practice. In particular, how they are able to create work that is partly made by machines but still expresses their individuality and style, and how they combine digital design and/or production with other techniques.
My first choice is Michael Brennand–Wood, an internationally renowned artist who became interested while an art student in using thread in place of paint “the idea of drawing with a needle and thread and working with three dimensional line”. Over the past three decades, he has embraced the use of many different materials and his style has constantly changed and evolved while remaining rooted in textiles and their historical associations. One such change took place around 2002 when he introduced flowers as a subject. Initially, real flowers were arranged in geometric patterns and photographed (Stars Underfoot); this led on to making flower heads by scanning drawings and sewing them out on multi-head embroidery machines, a technique he continues to use in conjunction with hands-on making.
The series Consequence of Proximities (2003) presents flower head motifs in carefully arranged geometric patterns using regularity and repetition as key features. It is interesting to compare the postcards below of Invisible Architecture (which is a photograph of real flowers – top) with All Night Flight (embroidered – bottom).
The two pieces use the same composition of five large circles joined by spokes and surrounded by smaller circles; although one is clearly man-made, the uniformity of the machine embroidered flowers is matched by the uniformity of the natural ones. However, Brennand-Wood does not allow the individual stitched elements to be identical, so while he is taking advantage of the machine’s ability to produce multiple pieces at speed, each one has been slightly adjusted at the design stage.
You can see this clearly in later works that incorporate repeated motifs. For example Holding Pattern (2007) has dozens of copies of a motif (it could be a butterfly or a fighter plane) stitched mainly in the same five colours. Looking more closely, each one is different, sometimes in the arrangement of the main colours, sometimes in the addition of a tiny fleck of a new colour or an extra stripe. There is no attempt to disguise the machine made nature of the elements; they use the satin stitch edge, brightly coloured shiny threads and textured fillings familiar from commercial mass-produced items, but each has been made individual by the artist’s touch. His use of these motifs in his recent work is also unusual, often they are presented as blooms attached to the end of wires protruding from three dimensional forms, referencing flowers while creating a commentary on war and death.
In contrast to Michael Brennand-Wood’s constructions, the most striking impression of Nigel Cheney’s work is of many layers of imagery overlapping and building up to a complex narrative. This British artist is now resident in Ireland and is an expert in industrial multi-head embroidery, having worked for a commercial company before taking a post as a lecturer. His work process always begins with drawing but he describes the finished pieces as “enjoying a full palette of textile processes including digital printing, hand and machine embroidery” and stresses the need for the contrast of weight of a hand stitch.
An example of the way he works is the pair of pieces Rabbit Moon 1 and Rabbit Moon 2 produced as part of the schiffli project at MMU in 2007. The schiffli is an early 20th century machine that was built for commercial mass production embroidery. Long since superseded, it is controlled using a pantograph to trace a drawing, and the operator directly controls each stitch of the machine, so there is a clear physical relationship between the maker and the machine. Cheney’s pieces were inspired by the Aztec legend of Nanauatl and Tecciztecatl, who became the sun and the moon. He created a digitally printed background by combining satellite photographs of Mexico City with the shape of a bay tree to form a symbol of the moon. Two copies of the print, one rotated at 180o, were then stitched with the schiffli using a small all-over pattern, one with black thread and one with white, creating different moods. The rabbits are drawn with a combination of the ‘mechanical drawing’ of the schiffli, computerised machining and hand stitch, and are similar in the two pieces but not identical. The various complex processes sit happily together to create unified images with great depth which do not come across as obviously machine made. Each is an individual expression of the story.
To demonstrate the effect of overstitching a printed background, I have made a sample on a piece of digitally printed canvas. I imitated the approach by freehand drawing a simple linear pattern into digitising software using a graphics tablet. This pattern was rotated and repeated to cover the area (about 8 inches square) and stitched out several times, overlapping in places and changing colour for the second layer. It makes the background much more interesting and adds texture without losing too much of the original image, retaining the character of the hand drawn line.
Finally, l would like to look at the work of Clare Lane who uses free machining on digital prints. Lane came from a background in architecture and surveying before studying for a textile degree, and her inspiration comes from urban dereliction. She regards these as our contemporary ruins, which are rarely looked upon as kindly as those that are hundreds of years old, yet they can hold as many stories. She describes how she is interested in the 'visual cacophony' of the urban landscape, the way that buildings are surrounded by all sorts of other things that are there without an overall design - rubbish, street signs, road markings.
Lane describes what she does as 'unashamedly process driven', starting with walking the streets and taking hundreds of photographs. The next stage is working with the images in Photoshop. She may use a single image or create a montage, cutting elements from several photographs to make her composition. For example, to create Doric Colonnade (below), one of a series of works based around images of Stanley Dock in Liverpool, she used her own photograph of a line of columns and added layers in Photoshop that include the original engineer’s drawings of the columns and dock wall, text relating to the industrialisation of Europe in the nineteenth century, and a scan of a textured surface she made from paint, glue and sand.
The key part of the process is digitally overpainting the whole picture, concentrating on colour and shape and working at such a high level of detail that she may spend hours on a tiny part of the image, looking at it as an abstract arrangement of colour and shape. Because of the size of the finished canvases (most are over a metre square, some much larger), she cannot truly see the final effect until it has been printed on fabric. Then comes the stitching, using an old industrial Irish machine to fill in solid blocks of colour on parts of the image, which relieves the flatness of the digital print. This is so subtle that on first glance you may not realise it is there, and it is not always apparent in photographs of her work.
Unlike the other two artists, Lane takes advantage of the print process to produce limited editions of her work (in very small numbers) but the stitching on each one will be different. Again, it is the personal touch of the artist’s hand that makes the work unique and this is the key to using technology effectively.
The Bigger Picture, Embroidery Sept/Oct 2012
Pretty Deadly exhibition catalogue
Interview with Diana Woolf Feb 2011 www.themaking.org.uk
All Stitched Up, Embroidery March/April 2011
Crafts Council Photostore www.photostore.org.uk
Artist’s website http://brennand-wood.com/
All Stitched Up, Embroidery March/April 2011
Manipulate. Construct. Embellish and Bombarded With Distractions – two part-interview at TextileArtist.org www.textileartist.org
Mechanical Drawing, the Schiffli Project, exhibition catalogue and DVD
Yarns and Tails, Embroidery Sept/Oct 2012
Artist’s website http://www.nigelcheney.com/
Urban Fabrication,Clare Lane, Design-It issue 76 (Computer Textile Design Group),2011.
Toil and Rubble, Jo Hall, Embroidery July/August 2008.
Stroudwater International Textile Festival Catalogue 2008.
Artist’s website www.urban-fabric.co.uk