Liz Williamson: Textiles
18 November - 18 December 2010
The work is spare and elegant. The colors are deep and dark, with subdued tones of navy, grey, and indigo, routinely plant-dyed. The materials are mostly natural, if not organic - cotton, silk, leather, linen and wool - with some polyester and rayon included in the mix. The titles, round, open, interlaced, fold, curve presence, dark sac, circle, container, blue inside, back, spot, water, earth, floral, lace, inside, bubble, stitch, line grey edge, navy edge, red edge, indigo edge, bronze edge, and the series descriptors, sac, curve, edge, loop, are stringently reductive. The nomenclature is conceptually restrained, nominally conjuring a scientific record of thought, an investigated imaginary, a hypothetical rather than a definitive narrative or, in more comforting systems, a lyrical imagination. These works not only look dark, they are quiet, mysterious, bordering on invisibility, evasive, discreet, shadowy, and precisely compelling. You want to touch them. You want to wear them. You want to feel them.
So it is not entirely clear from the first encounters with her work that Liz Williamson’s practice is an exploration and dislocation of the domain of the feminine. In looking closely, hints and clues are evident in the oblique, reticent forms of the personal, human address of her work, in the quasi-garments of the wrap, the scarf, or the shawl. It can be seen especially in the formality of the work and the somewhat foreboding quality of the depth of color and the darkness of tones, and not unexpectedly then, the tone of darkness.
Her work, for all its self-contained deliberateness, reserve, fashionable elegance and coherent visual aesthetics, is a radical, liberating form of expression. To play with fabric, to play on fabric, or to produce fabric in any culturally indeterminant way is provocative and knowing. To go further and position those experiments within the field of art - beyond fashion and way beyond utility – and to incorporate and at the same time bypass the conditions of the feminine with a universalizing logic of androgyneity and a coherent focus on privileging materiality, is a liberating strategy. To decouple textiles from its conditions of creation, the elements of its female history, and its subtle or deliberately obvious allusions to adornment and bodily décor is a continuously radical event. A process that is disconcerting and surprisingly profound. It is how art works. Williamson takes particular liberties at a strategic level, playing safe with the object, keeping the artifact secure and somewhat demure, but remaking it from within - ameliorating forms, teasing apart methods, easing in new materials, and draining color from her works.
The abstracted forms of clothing and the sparely descriptive titles of Williamson’s works and series allude to the ambiguous sense of confidence and diffidence the artist perversely sets about exploring in her practice. Textiles and textile art, especially in their pre- and post-industrial forms of aesthetic production, can easily be understood as intricately embedded in the work, practices and identity of women. Without ever denying those historically specific constants, Williamson’s work opens up various escape routes to the systemic pressures of cultural theory that constrain discursive notions of craft, fashion, identity, or even consciousness, to singular forms and immutably bounded fields of perception and knowledge.
There is a spaciousness and unfixed quality, an innate potential, in the protective effects of these works that disassociate them from the symbolic logic of key concepts in Freudian interpretations of artifacts, and of Freud’s somewhat fluid, imprecise descriptions of the ego. Williamson’s work loosely aligns with Freud’s key notion of the ego performing "a work of colonization and assimilation…stretching out towards the point or object the ego desires, and pulling the desired object inside the ego's own boundary or skin," but, with considerably more precision, her work hones in on the subtle and ambiguous concepts in Freud’s idea of "the ego as an agency without center, simply as the movement from one point of identification to the next across the whole 'envelope of circumstances.'" To this extent, Williamson’s work is far more sensitive to the viewer and to the slippages of reverie and reflection that art can animate when it works at both the conscious and subconscious levels, and at both the visceral and visual levels, of physical encounters.
The invention of clothing may come down to protection, providing insulation from the elements through an additive process of sheathing the skin to supplement the initial separation of flesh from exposure to the caustic and reactive physicality of nature. Despite our longing, not everything in nature is a cool, soothing pool of water. The harsh conditions of the world make the human body a fragile artifact of evolution, conditioned to live in a very narrow band of the world climate, without the addition of normative barriers to alleviate the harshness of the elements. Williamson’s work is a meditation on fabric and cloth as a metaphoric and precariously mutable form of protection.
Long, draped dark fabrics, formed by an ancient and meticulous system of construction, compiling extended streams or short slips of thread, tensioned and stretched together, their matrix an interlocking structure slowly building layer upon and layer and line upon line into abstracted, elegant, wearable systems of body and shape adornment, are simply seductive. Seductive in form and seductive to the eye. Seductive but not necessarily erotic.
These works, capable of both sexualizing and referencing the body, are not really triggers for desire in the way representations of the body can be. They mark entirely different territory, activating a semiotic function that reflects memory and identity. Viewing these works animates the relationship amongst the eye, the body, and the mind. What we see, what we feel, and what we think is part of the complexity accomplished by these objects; the conceptual premises dependent on the visual and visceral components of sinuous, fluid form and supple tactile touch, react aesthetically at both the psychic and physical level providing considerable pleasure at the evocative, imaginary space they create through our interaction. Clothing, through its cloaking, concealing function, in its most apparent, rough and ready, or even extreme, technical forms, has retained the potential for seduction.
Imagistic forms inhabit the human shape of the cloth and clothing that comprise Williamson’s artistic pursuits. As readily utilitarian as a scarf or wrap, or the unenclosed sac, may be, it nonetheless follows and represents the contours and lines of the body or the belly. The languid quality of this kind of fabric and form is both teasing and evocative. The nature of the folds, the drapes and billows of the fabric, as they hang on the wall, on the body, or on display, suggest echoes of the creases and crevices of the secret, private parts of the anatomy, and the soft luxuriousness of well hidden and protected skin.
Contemporary art has succeeded in eliding many differences in genres and styles, and has welcomed the absorption of similar, dissimilar and obtuse discourses into the materiality of its systems, even, in this context, as its humanizing impulse destabilizes the colonizing, exoticizing, instrumentalizing histories of craft or fashion. The conceits and feints of fashion, and haute couture in particular, is an extraordinary narrative of display and bodily adornment that at once highlights and conceals, and at the same time distends and distorts. Notions of craft, in their reductive form, as a discourse of functional objects or technical elitism, have slowly given way to the engagement of diverse artistic histories, complex visual narratives, and the symbolic logic of materiality that intersects classes, communities, and cultures in the manifestation and denotation of their identities and rituals of power and authority.
Liz Williamson’s work, accomplished and beautiful as it is, operates in a field of inquiry that is far more powerful and intriguing than an exquisite adornment of the body, or the inflections of innovative fabric-making, or the re-conceptualization of art mediated through textiles and design. The abstracted nature of the work is in no way fictitious in an oblique narrative sense, rather the work is decidedly ambiguous, operating in two psychic registers simultaneously, rigorously anonymous yet convincingly personal. The work strikes a chord with viewers, one that is both resonant and redolent of culture, memory, and individual identity. Its functionality, utility, and innate body image forms, are carefully calibrated by a precise range of aesthetic qualities that comprise a deeper, subtle view of the complexities and frailties of human form and need.
Lecturer in the School of Art History & Art Education, COFA, UNSW