The work of the human hand is firmly back at the forefront of visual art, as is testified by works appearing in countless exhibitions and studios. Artists are making objects themselves, learning crafts and digging up old techniques, whether wood carving, metal casting, printing or textile work. There is nothing surprising about this: the general outsourcing of professional and private tasks such as cooking and cleaning, a growing and more general sense of dislocation, and a life that is increasingly lived via the mediation of a screen are all contributing factors to the urge to make. Indeed, this shift to reclaim manual skills using more or less natural materials not only pertains to visual art but goes far beyond it, and neither is it automatically old-fashioned; on the contrary, it is often unexpectedly refreshing to experience the old in new translations.
A particular focus within this overall trend is weaving. The exhibition Textile Subtexts at Malmö Konstmuseum earlier this year, for example, contained woven work by artists such as Hannah Ryggen and Charlotte Johannesson. And there seem to be looms everywhere. During the last month I have come across them in contexts as varied as the fabulous Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, where a lady was making flax fabric once used for sails on a standing loom, and at Tensta Konsthall’s own Women’s Café, where women of all ages gather twice a week around textile handicraft activities. An artist who has made a point of contributing to the revival of old weaving techniques is Anne Low of Vancouver; as might be expected, her studio is dominated by a large weaving loom, inherited from an older weaver and used for making cloth the historical way – meticulously and very slowly.
It was an unassuming object presented earlier this year on the wall of the Vancouver Art Gallery during its local survey show Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures that sparked my curiosity about Low’s work. There I saw a piece of slightly draped mustard-yellow cloth with small green embroideries speckling the surface. The cloth was contained in a wooden frame with a sheet of glass in front and the fabric spilling over the top. It was hung at waist-height and so appeared like an apron in an unusual vitrine, peculiarly concrete and abstract, rough and smooth at the same time. Later I learned that the artist dyed the cloth herself using Osage orange, a plant-based dye used for hundreds of years on the American continent to produce orange and yellow, as well as khaki green used for army uniforms. The shapes of the embroidery were borrowed from a pattern used by Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688–1763), a prominent rococo designer of floral patterns for silk woven by hand in London’s Spitalfields, lately celebrated as a pioneer within the field of fabric design.
Seemingly simple as a piece of work, Low’s An Ambitious Pagan (II) (2016) has something ethnographic to it; reviving a colonial weaving technique, clearly connected to the human body, with a devotion to the decorative. In Low’s hands cloth aspires to be an autonomous form. And yet, on display, it relies on the frame Low has designed. Fabric in general benefits from some kind of support – it blossoms when it is attached to something: a piece of furniture, an architectural feature, a body, a hanger or a mannequin. In this sense, cloth is quintessentially relational, going from modesty while folded or rolled to being stunning when activated. At the same time, for good or for bad, cloth has the capacity to appear authorless . While weaving is a pervasive artform through history, the extremely-time-consuming and female-dominated activity of making cloth rarely comes with the name of its fabricator attached.
In newer work, Low plays with the contrasts between organic and synthetic materials, and combines handmade objects and readymade parts like a sock darner from the nineteenth century, small eighteenth-century silver coins or a plastic fish used in angling. These works approach the surreal. Some of the surrealism is tied to the fact that she is translating, rather than simply appropriating objects or techniques; her work is not about claiming ownership but, rather like intangible cultural heritage, about temporarily activating knowledge through the demonstration of skill, in subjective ways. A continuous, freewheeling and poetic translation, by hand.
Maria Lind is director of the Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm
From the October 2017 issue of ArtReview