art v craft; round 1

by Abigail Percy on March 26, 2006

in Fibre+Needlework

I’m always very interested in intersections of high and low art, and blurring lines between art and craft. Yet it’s rare to see them pitted against each other.

stephen sollins

The very generous Sharonb who maintains the free online stitch dictionary keeps a really interesting blog. (NB: This is from last year, but so very provocative. Sorry if it’s old news to anyone else!)

Sharonb posted about her mixed feelings about the work of an artist, Stephen Sollins who takes old samplers and pulls out the thread- erasing the work. He re-embroiders modernist color-blocks over the faded image. One thing she took umbrage to was the mention that “Sollins eulogizes the anonymous craftsperson while elevating commonplace linens to fine art” on this gallery’s website.

The thing I think is: “but is it good art?” In a way, I think this series of work is a clever and simple device, and a conceptual one-liner. I do think it is important to see an artist’s work as part of their larger body of work. I have not seen Sollins’s other work, but I would guess that he probably meanders among media, and makes similiar conceptual mind-candy. I’m guessing his work might be more about ironic statement-making, rather than work about embroidery or domestic history. I doubt the work was intentionally about the erasure of woman’s history by a dominant autocratic male force. (intermission, heather checks google images for sollins’s work). In another series Sollins “created an array of horn mutes, cast in translucent acrylic, that sculpturally symbolize musical silence.” (from NYT Art Reviews) (heather confirms guess).

Though this may not be brilliant by design… it is interesting how it has energized the space around this topic. Does it matter if the artist originally intended the work to result in the meaning? I don’t think it really does. I often think an artist cannot understand their work fully, until it becomes a cultural artifact and is absorbed into a social fabric of audience interpretation. (yes i’m part of *that* camp).

His work sparked a huge backlash of needlecrafters who were seriously offended. Apparently he has several hexes on him now. But don’t blame Stephen, he innocently stumbled upon a prickly subject. He tried apologizing and explaining his work, but SFGate said “he is apparently talking across a cultural divide he may not have known existed.” (from a review on SFGate) That is putting it mildly.

The comments on Inaminuteago show some highly charged emotional responses: ” I hope their ghosts come back to haunt him big time!!!!!!” and “I saw some of this work at the Art of the Stitch in the UK a few years back and it really upset me”. For that, it is an an effective artwork, and hats off to Stephen for his ignorace of this cultural divide, which makes it all the more poignant. I think effective artworks provoke thought and emotion, and remind us of things we had not known we had forgotten. Not all art is about love and beauty, as life is not all love and beauty.

The reaction to this work belies that with all the advances woman have made in many western countries, there is still alot of pain passed through generations, and lost history never to be recovered.

What is this really about?

I think this kerfuffle is about the use of female-domain crafts for male-dominated high art… As more and more handcrafts are brought into fine art, both female and male artists are exploring the materials and methods of handcrafts. It’s a kind of art-trend occuring at the moment, rippling through the genre. As in the 60′s advertising was explored in pop-art, or how in the early 20th century the subconcious mind was explored in surrealist art. Perhaps -culturally we need to spend some time re-interpreting and re-considering how we feel about handcrafts, and making things. And artists need to make these serendipitous blunders to help illuminate just why it is we are compelled to work on this topic.
Susanb wrote another post in response to the comments- on The cultural Value of textiles.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 p March 26, 2006 at 3:30 pm

Recycling, re-interpreting, influences – these are cornerstones of both art and craft. Many of us unravel jumpers from charity shops to reknit, or use strips of dress fabric for quilting. We actually gain from someone else’s crafting choices.

But Sollin’s incredible ignorance of craft history and complete lack of empathy is fairly staggering. If he’d made these pieces as a comment on the invisibility of craftmakers’ labour, the pieces would be seen entirely differently (and they would have had more artistic meaning).

I’ve got a foot in each camp on the ‘social interpretation’ vs ‘artist meaning’ debate. I completely agree that what a viewer brings to the artwork is essential; that everyone sees an artwork differently because of their own experiences, prejudices etc. But I think what the artist originally intended has a place too. Does this mean stupid artists are basically not as good as intelligent ones? Hmmm, not sure, but think you need a modicum of knowledge to really pull off ironic conceptual art.

2 Kathie March 26, 2006 at 8:51 pm

I count myself among those seriously offended by this series. I question whether “commonplace linens” really need to be elevated to “fine art”, by him or by anyone else. I just don’t see the point.

As to whether Sollin was able to fully understand what he was doing: counted cross stitch is not a speedy process. It took him awhile to work his magic–to rip out what was there and to embroider his color blocks. I think he had plenty of time to consider the implications.

3 Valerie March 27, 2006 at 12:08 am

I agree with “p” about recycling and re-intrepreting other’s work and ideas being a lot of what art and craft are about. Think of artists/crafters who alter used books, textiles, or other items in various ways, for their own purposes, whether practical or creative. Even if these items were commercially produced, there was still time and effort that went into creating them originally, only to be altered in some way for someone else’s purpose.

As for the commentary on the gallery’s site, it seems unfair to focus on one particular sentence, as provoking as it may be. Did the artist even write this himself, or was this written by the gallery? Furthermore, what about the part that explains that Mr. Sollins counted “the stitches by color and then” proceeded “to re-embroider squares in a geometric grid with each colored square consisting of the same number of stitches per color as the original.” That doesn’t sound like someone just ripping out threads without any regard for some aspect of the original work. I’m actually curious to know more about this process, like whether the artist hand-embroidered or machine-embroidered the squares on the piece.

4 McAuliflower March 27, 2006 at 1:11 am

“I’m guessing his work might be more about ironic statement-making, rather than work about embroidery or domestic history. I doubt the work was intentionally about the erasure of woman’s history by a dominant autocratic male force.” – I highly doubt your statement here. The work that artists exhibit go through intensive rounds of debate and critique- and this is before it is released into the public.

His work is good precisely because of the debate and thought that we and others are putting into his exhibiton. We may not like what he has done, but that is a calculated response that Solins was hoping for. Look at what it has accomplished- a charged emotional response, a posting about his exhibiton even though it was over a year ago! This is the penultimate response to an art piece an artist could ever dream of… you are keeping his art alive and valuable.

He knew what he was doing, as a tradition of eraser art has been established… his use of textiles was intentional and probably chosen precisely becasue of the gender and time associations tied in with it. In response to the world wide criticism he has received from embroidery workers he stated the origin of these pieces being the equivalent of paint-by-number works… in that statement he is challenging us, his viewers to ask if that devalues the original un-stiched work.

Can you imagine this work re-interpreted in a paint-by-number theme? Would there be such an outburst?

5 Hestia March 27, 2006 at 3:16 am

There have actually been a number of contemporary painters who have obliterated paint-by-numbers, and even original oil and acrylic paintings, that they’ve picked up at garage sales and thrift shops. See, for example, Chris Malloko.

I think Sollins’ work is indirectly related to gender, in that embroidery is culturally considered to be “women’s work.” If we want to read Sollins’ pieces as sexist, it should be because he chose samplers to begin with, not because he took those samplers apart.

6 Chrome Poet March 27, 2006 at 8:46 pm

I find it difficult to see anything positive in this work. Making way for geometry by erasing individual, artistic effort makes a broad statement about our society, but does it justify destroying artifacts? Do we really need blocks of color juxtaposed on needle work patterns to remind us that we have become narrow-minded materialists?

On the other hand, they are nicely arranged blocks of color, I guess.

BTW, the statement about our society that I read in this work: We have destroyed personal art with technology and with blind faith that what experts call fine art is indeed fine and art; that the efforts of ‘trained’ artists is more important than the creation for the joy of creation by natural artists.

7 Hayley March 28, 2006 at 7:21 am

Would this piece be interpreted differently if Sollins was female? Absolutely. In response to Hestia I think this piece is 100% related to gender. Samplers are a part of women’s history, not just as a craft, but as a social obligation.

Samplers were also a symbol of class status; many of the more elaborate samplers were made by upper class women, who had the time, resources, and education to produce them. Those ones are highly valued today (I have seen a few priced on Antiques Roadshow), and there are plenty of art exhibits displaying elaborate samplers. The fact that he was able to tear one apart means that it was probably one that was done by a lower/ working class woman. So not only is it women’s history that is being erased/ covered but it is lower class women’s history. I find it extremely offensive, but like McAuliflower said above, the artist was looking for an emotionally charged response.

Situationalists used this method to produce, saying value should not be determined by age and that no one piece of art is worth more than another. But still, that method ignores the fact that the work of women, non-whites, minority religions, etc. have been consistently devalued already.

I would hate to ignore something like this because men who make “high art” out of “craft” has been such a trend in the art world, where value is arbitrary assigned to their work. Sollins is saying that as THE ARTIST (remember the modern/ historical debate over “the artist’s hand”), his work is important, but the sampler by some unknown woman is generic.

I think we can change our perception to take value away from the artist’s work; what would his work be like if not for the woman who made the original sampler? Whose work is better? Who made the original sampler and why? What a review of the work completely ignored his little squares and only focused on the original sampler?

8 Artchicken April 2, 2006 at 10:17 pm

Reclaim the work if it offends you.
Purchase his, rip it out, and re-stitch it.
You can erase his work just as easily.

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