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ARTICLE ARCHIVE
Summer 2003

FEATURE

Bigger Isn't Always Better

An embroidery artist's thoughts on the birth, growth, and strengths of the genre of miniature textiles

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.
        - William 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!"
Sheila Hicks, Parque Forestal, 1960; wool; weaving, wrapping; 9.6 by 6.4 inches.
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?

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, N.Y.

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.
Maria Nemes, String Box, 1976; hemp; plaiting; 7.9 by 7.9 by 7.9 inches. Photo: Leonard Nones, courtesy of LongHouse Reserve.
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.

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 Services.

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, Indiana.

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, 2001;
metal, monofilament; woven, crimped; 8 by 8 by 2 inches.
Photo: Leonard Nones, courtesy of LongHouse Reserve.
 

Judith Brotman, Sacrificial Glove, 1991; sewing
thread, glove; embroidery; 6.25 by 4.5 by 3 inches.
Collection of Candace Groot.

 
Dorothy Gill Barnes, Outside In, 2002; white-pine bark,
waxed linen, spruce root; cutting, stitching; 7.5 by 7.25
by 6 inches. Photo: Leonard Nones, courtesy of LongHouse
Reserve.


This article first appeared in:

Summer 2003


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