Bigger Isn't Always Better
By Ayelet Lindenstrauss Larsen
To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Blake, from "Auguries of Innocence"
|Rita Grendze, Testimony (with detail), 1998;
wood, photocopy; 9 by 9 by 3 inches. Photo: D. James Dee.
Exhibitions of miniature textiles are growing in number and
in visibility. There are, of course, good practical reasons
for it: Miniature textiles do not require unusual resources
to produce, and they are easy to transport, so exhibitions
of them can cover an uncommonly diverse spectrum of artists
and approaches on a limited budget. In addition to their practicality,
there are ways in which miniature textiles mesh serendipitously
with current art concerns. In their intrinsic need for scale,
they often refer to the human body. In their fundamental obsession
with what they are made of, they are perfect vehicles for
highlighting new materials and for exploring the effects of
time on old or recycled ones. But these reasons do not account
for the vitality of the shows or the excitement inherent in
the small-scale artworks they contain.
Miniature textiles, as a genre, lay claim to a primary way
of interacting with the world: the way in which we look at
a beautiful seashell or a convoluted piece of driftwood. Fiber
is, in fact, the only craft medium that has claimed this mode
of interaction as a subgenre. A show of teapots, or earrings,
or miniature wood turnings, might have a size limit and might
well contain objects that one would like to cup in one's hand
and admire as small natural wonders. But that mode of interaction
is neither the subject nor the common theme of such a show.
Some small works in wood or metal, such as Rita Grendze's
haunting Testimony, make their way into shows of miniature
textiles and seem more at home there than in exhibitions of
their respective media.
|7 Patti Lechman, Samadhi, 1994; nylon thread,
glass beads; knotting; 5 by 6 by 5 inches. Photo: Chuck
Woodliff. Collection of Camille and Alex Cook.
Miniature textiles came into being as an "official" exhibitable
genre as part of the art-fabric movement in the 1960s and
1970s. The focus of the movement was on uniting the roles
of artist-designer and craftsperson- maker, which had been
distinct in the old European tapestry-weaving tradition. It
confronted the traditional dichotomy between art - public, large, formal,
usually designed by men - and craft - private, small, possibly
more spontaneous, usually made by women. Building on the ideas
of William Morris's Arts and Crafts movement, the makers of
art fabrics continued to push technique to the fore as part
of the content of a work, rather than as a skillfully transparent
vehicle for conveying that content. Art textiles were made
by those who designed them - women and men. Spontaneous, personal
expression was valued. And the pieces were big, often monumental,
declaring through their presence, "This is art!"
It is not, then, surprising that while large art fabrics were
already dominating the International Tapestry Biennial in Lausanne
by the mid-1960s, the first full-scale international exhibition
of mini-textiles opened only in 1974 (though Sheila Hicks had
been making miniature textiles since 1956, work that will be
documented in her upcoming book Text Iles; and though
what is now the Museum of Arts and Design presented small art
fabrics in "The Miniature Tapestry" in 1966). The transition
from the Lausanne biennial's initial minimum size of 10 square
meters to the mini-textile's maximum of eight inches in any
dimension was drastic, but the two formats have this in common:
their unusual size intrigues and invites further investigation.
Most of the artists who were asked to participate in this 1st
International Exhibition of Miniature Textiles in London were
known for their large textiles. Many of the pieces they made
were conceived and created without reference to larger works,
but there were also scale replicas of existing works, scale
models from which larger pieces were to be made, and pieces
that could have been fragments from larger works. The relationship
between an artist's work on two different scales caused much
discussion and some concern. Clearly, if a piece is made in
two scales and one version is more complete, is more fully developed,
or communicates its message more forcefully, it is superior.
But if both are equally expressive, following the "step lightly"
ethos, should the smaller one not even be preferred?
|Sheila Hicks, Parque Forestal, 1960; wool;
weaving, wrapping; 9.6 by 6.4 inches.
The 1960s and 1970s were a golden age for the art-fabric
movement, dedicated to the exploration and celebration of
fiber materials and processes. And just as the old English
ballads survived in a truer form in the hills of Appalachia
than they did in the British Isles, the spirit of the art-fabric
movement changed less in the backwaters of mini-textiles than
it did in the mainstream, which, being more acceptable to
the outside art world, was also more influenced by political
art, conceptual art, and installation art. Mini-textiles were
allowed to stay, just a little longer, in the golden age.
|Alastair Duncan, Tenses 2, 1998; cotton warp,
wool weft, barbed wire, steel mesh; tapestry; 10 by 10
by 2.5 inches. Photo: David Wibberly.
English sculptor Henry Moore said: "If you photographed it
against a blank wall in which you had nothing to refer it
to but itself - or you photographed it against the sky against
infinite distance - a small thing only a few inches big might
seem, if it had a monumental scale, to be any size. Now this
is a quality which I personally think all really great sculpture
has; it's a quality which, for me, all the great painters
have - Rubens, Masaccio, Michelangelo - all the great painters,
artists, and sculptors have this monumental sense." [from
Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, edited by
Alan Wilkinson, University of California Press, 2002]. This
test is, of course, better suited to works in which the signs
of the maker's hand are subtle. Magnifying a Rubens tenfold
is one thing, but it would be hard to view a similarly enlarged
van Gogh without wondering what he used for a paintbrush.
Works can be imposing at any scale and yet viewed most naturally
only within a narrow range of scales. A textile bears the
signs of its maker's hands very clearly. And the fibers themselves
dictate an internal scale to a piece: anyone who has worked
with pearl cotton would react viscerally to a strand an inch
in diameter. The ideal miniature should aspire to Moore's
monumental scale and nevertheless exist most happily within
its miniature dimensions. The tension between the abstract
idea and its realization by real-life materials that relate
to everyday objects is at the heart of textile art.
|Hiroyuki Shindo, Cube, 1996; linen, sisal;
weaving, folding, dyeing; 5.5 by 6 by 5.6 inches. Photo:
Leonard Nones, courtesy of LongHouse Reserve, East Hampton,
Many things can tie a textile to its scale. The fibers dictate
the scale in Hiroyuki Shindo's Cube. The pattern of
indigo absorption is affected by the threads and folds of
the fabric. The weave of the fabric determines the jaggedness
of the edge; the proportion of the jagged edge to the entire
cube then determines the dimensions of the piece. Maria Nemes's
String Box is fascinating for its simultaneous suggestion
of the strength and the frailty of the twine - both achieved
by size and proportion within the work.
When found objects are incorporated into a textile, they can
determine its scale. The true scale of the barbs on Alastair
Duncan's Tenses 2 calls attention to the fact that they
are real, that the way they are so meticulously embedded in
fine tapestry is unnatural, and that this tapestry is, of all
colors, woven in different shades of red. Within his small format
and spare composition, Duncan packs a complex yet very forceful
comment on growing up in Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s.
|Maria Nemes, String Box, 1976; hemp; plaiting;
7.9 by 7.9 by 7.9 inches. Photo: Leonard Nones, courtesy
of LongHouse Reserve.
The scale of a textile can also be set by reference to everyday
objects - an article of clothing, a cup, a basket. Wearables
have particular fascination: we are extremely sensitive to
variations in size or shape on a human form. Taking his outline
from the contour of a flip-flop, as in Fire Walking,
Tom Lundberg uses subtle variations of scale to conjure images
of different wearers. The pictorial elements on this insole
tell a story; connecting them to the anatomy of a foot superimposes
another layer of associations that amplify the poignancy of
the piece. Judith Brotman made her Sacrificial Glove
as a stand-in for herself as she was contemplating the changes
graduate school would bring to her artmaking. One would read
the exuberance of her surfaces in any format, but the realistically
sized glove makes us a little worried about the vigorous slits
- do they hurt?
|Tom Lundberg, Fire Walking, 2002; cotton,
silk, and wool threads on cotton; embroidery; 9.6 by 4
inches. Photo: Colorado State University Photographic
Baskets have been a strong influence on art fabrics as they
moved off the wall and expanded into the third dimension.
Many miniature textiles, in particular, relate to this rich
heritage of functionally and aesthetically self-contained
objects that were often small. Utilitarian or not, the fact
that Patti Lechman's knotted Samadhi is a vessel is
as essential to it as the elegant geometry of its contours
and the intricacy of its patterns. References to basketry
include also the use of a variety of flexible, off-loom construction
techniques, and a whole range of natural materials, such as
reeds, branches, or the pine bark on Dorothy Gill Barnes's
exquisite Outside In, which plays wittily on the concept
of containment - the essence of functional baskets.
Some miniature textiles simply need to be perceived as small
for maximal impact. In Wingaersheek Rocks II, Linda
Behar shades her forms by countless stitches going in all
directions. The resulting color transitions would be beautiful
whether large or small, but at their minute scale, her stitches
entice us, like the innards of a mechanical clock, to come
closer and see how it all works. Size does not explicitly
figure in, but is implied by, Katrina Lepännen's title for
Happiness: Fragile and Fading.
What is now the Triennial of Miniature Textiles in Szombathely,
Hungary, is widely regarded as the heir of the first international
mini-textile exhibitions in London. There is also a themed
triennial of mini-textiles in Angers, France; a themed annual
exhibition in Como, Italy; and a Baltic mini-textile biennial.
The Handweavers Guild of America's annual "Small Expressions"
has expanded to include miniature textiles of all kinds, and
the Helen Drutt Gallery in Philadephia has exhibited "Miniatures
2000," which it hopes to make into a regular series. Add to
that an exhibition of "Small Works in Fiber" at the LongHouse
Reserve, with works dating from the 1960s to our time, and
many other one-time exhibitions worldwide, and you see that
mini-textiles are here to stay - in a big way.
Ayelet Lindenstrauss Larsen writes and embroiders in Bloomington,
Linda Behar, Wingaersheek Rocks
II, 1997; cotton,
acrylic paint, cotton and polyester/cotton thread;
machine and hand embroidery; 4 by 5 inches.
Collection of David and Mary Lizotte. Photo: David Caras.
|Katrina Leppänen, Happiness: Fragile and Fading,
metal, monofilament; woven, crimped; 8 by 8 by 2 inches.
Photo: Leonard Nones, courtesy of LongHouse Reserve.
Judith Brotman, Sacrificial Glove, 1991;
thread, glove; embroidery; 6.25 by 4.5 by 3 inches.
Collection of Candace Groot.
|Dorothy Gill Barnes, Outside In, 2002; white-pine
waxed linen, spruce root; cutting, stitching; 7.5 by 7.25
by 6 inches. Photo: Leonard Nones, courtesy of LongHouse