June 20 - July 22, 2001
The history of clothing begins with fig leaves and has no end. Like a river, it is always changing and yet always the same. Perhaps that is because all clothing draws on basic archetypes rooted in the form of the human body and in the inherent properties of textiles. It is this pattern language which artist Sarah Quinton explores with wry wit and poetic insight in this exhibition. The language of helmets and headdresses, capes and tunics, skirts and bodices, has been passed down through the generations since the expulsion from the Garden. The readiest medium for those ideas is not speech but rather simple line drawings. Through them, a contemporary seamstress communes with her medieval counterparts, much as a modern architect is able to "read" plans for the great cathedrals.
Quinton is fluent in this privileged discourse, both through her years of work as a textile artist and curator, and through her early education as a dressmaker's daughter. In her personal library are old-fashioned, practical guides for milliners and dressmakers, as well as popular costume histories. These texts contain a rich vocabulary of images - from collar interfacings to blouse ruffles to fabric roses to baby diapers - which are the direct sources for this new body of work. Just as English can be a medium for poetry or prose, this pattern language can serve a useful purpose and it can be the stuff of visual art.1 While honouring their origins, Quinton releases these patterns from the realm of the practical and rescues them from outmoded obscurity. In translating them into art, she situates them within a larger web of human significance.
What attracts her will vary from image to image: a box-pleated skirt or a cocktail dress recalls her introduction to fashion in the 1950s; a diagram of gently folded fabric is lovely in its own right. The first is about the imposition of order; the second is about the natural behaviour of cloth. The interplay between the two is a running theme throughout the show. quinton3Often, it is the very suggestiveness of the source patterns that engages the artist's interest: the sleeve of a 17th-century man's tunic evokes a bone; a neck facing is a Chinese pagoda; a skullcap is a cross section of fruit. There is humour, as well, in twin drawings, which show how to adjust the hem of a woman's skirt to compensate for poor posture or a large stomach. Quinton begins by copying the line drawings by hand onto dressmaker's tissue paper. She then machine-stitches over the paper onto cloth, often leaving the black threads dangling. Like sperm or rocket tails, the threads appear to have an upward propulsive force. Their raw, unfinished state references the act of sewing and, in some cases, female sexuality. There is a cheekiness about this refusal to tie up "loose ends," an acknowledgement of the old adage about women's work never being done.
In the title work, Drill, Quinton arranges a tableau of small, stitched cloth rectangles within an area, which is roughly the size of a bolt of fabric. The cloth itself is a felt-backed collar stiffener of a pearly grey colour pierced with tiny holes and made slightly iridescent by the presence of tiny microfilaments.
In foregrounding a fabric, which was never intended to be important in its own right, Quinton draws attention to the potential of humble materials. She also pays homage to the exacting labour of sewing: the drill of perpetual con- centration and practice that is necessary to get the simplest seam right. The rough texture of hair canvas, another tailoring stiffener that is the background for the larger, postcard-sized rectangles in Pounce, forms a pleasing contrast with the pristine elegance of the images. The cloth "postcards" have twin counterparts in lead onto which Quinton has hammered with the sharp point of a nail. These marks echo the piercing of the sewing needle, but in a masculine idiom. quinton5 In the work Vogue, everything comes together across a long, narrow strip of machine-stitched and hand-embroidered tailor's canvas. Beginning with fitted caps, moving past bras and trousers and ending with a jaunty sandal kicking upward, Quinton weaves a tapestry of forms both foreign and familiar. Although the careful fitting together of parts recalls the dressmaker's frugal husbanding of cloth, the images tumble along playfully as if on a current. Within that protean stream of shapes both foreign and familiar, we may experience an affirming connection to that deeper ocean where all patterns are connected.
- Gillian MacKay