The subjective and westernized story of art history has been shaped by the development of hierarchies between, among other things, subject genres and mediums. For instance, around the 17th century, historical subject matter was considered the grandest of genres while still life occupied the last position on the list. In the case of mediums, painting was regarded as a “high art” whereas embroidery was categorized as a “low art.” Fortunately, in contemporary art, all subject matters are considered equal and the difference between high and low art doesn’t depend on the medium but rather on how it is employed.
The current exhibition at the Illingworth Kerr Gallery, Common Threads, is a perfect example of how “low art” mediums have been widely used and appropriated by contemporary artists to serve their specific communication needs. Produced by the San Francisco-Vancouver-based independent curator Lee Plested, this exhibition unites 13 artists and art collectives from Germany, Italy, Denmark, Canada and the United States that share the use, in their artistic practice, of knitting and/or embroidery as a common thread. The following is a brief overview of some highlights from the exhibition.
• Judith Scott’s Untitled (wire), 2004
Scott’s cocoon-shaped sculpture was created by tangling grey electric cables with neon orange yarn, in addition to a few other odds and ends. The work relies on contrasts for visual interest as the vividly coloured yarn pops against the dull grey colour of the cable, and the plastic exterior of the latter accentuates the soft texture of the former. The true essence of the work, however, lies in the metaphors that it evokes in regards to technology, communication and networking. Surprisingly, Oakland-based Scott, who passed away two years ago, was deaf, mute and had little understanding of the concept of language.
• Anders Bonnesen’s Tent (without poles), 2007
From any distance other than close-up, Bonnesen’s life-sized tent appears to have been constructed with a coarse linen fabric densely woven in a geometric patchwork pattern of muted hues. Viewed up close, however, the optical illusion fades away to reveal the textile’s true and unexpected nature: glossy, multicoloured magazine paper. Shredded into tiny strips, the paper has been painstakingly woven to mimic the look and feel of coarse linen and draped over candy-striped painted wooden planks. In all three works by this Danish artist included in the exhibition, fabric is being evoked and mimicked by the most unlikely of materials.
• Suzen Green’s How to Have a Private Conversation in Public, 2007
Calgarian Suzen Green knits solutions to contemporary social problems. With this specific work, Green presents her remedy for the commonly experienced problem of having a private conversation in a public area by linking the face of two toques to one another by way of a knitted tube. The grey, white and red colours of the toques makes the unexpected appendage that much more noticeable, as they directly refer to a Canadian traditional style of toque. Although one’s first response to Green’s creations might be to chuckle, they nevertheless bring to light serious communication problems that have been brushed aside by today’s society.
• Francesco Vezzoli’s Hommage to the Square, 2003
Vezzoli is an internationally acclaimed Italian artist who works with video (he produced the notorious Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula that was shown at the 2006 Whitney Biennial) and embroidery to create two distinct bodies of works. Hommage to the Square is more specifically in homage to American abstract painter Joseph Albers’s famous square-within-square paintings. The three smallest squares are embroidered in varying hues of yellow, while the larger squares were created with different coloured mat boards. The whole is contained under glass held by a thin, plain black frame. A work is not in homage if the inspiration of the work is being ridiculed, but Vezzoli manages to make his tongue-in-cheek, kitschy homage to such an iconic symbol of modern art because he has given it depth and esthetic value.
Although the many works in the exhibition have been selected for their individual strengths, their proximity to one another allows the viewer to build an appreciation for the numerous ways artists incorporate knitting, embroidery and related craftwork in their contemporary practises. It is hard to tell how long this artistic preoccupation will last, but it certainly has made its presence felt in the past few years on an international level.