Dropped threads: Articulating a history of textile instability through 20th Century sculpture

McGown, Katie (2016) Dropped threads: Articulating a history of textile instability through 20th Century sculpture. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University.

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Despite the ‘post-media condition’ of contemporary practice, some materials continue to be more equal than others. Cloth has a problematic history in Western art, frequently dismissed for its perceived inability to convey meaning beyond its own materiality, or a narrow idea of identity. The following thesis reconsiders this perspective and argues that it arose from the concurrence of heterogeneous post-war groups such as Post-Minimalism, and Fiber and Tapestry Movements, and the plethora of textile-based work they created. I review the accompanying critical responses to demonstrate how they sought to differentiate the use of fabric within these movements through the entrenchment of boundaries between valourised ‘art’ and denigrated ‘craft’. The thesis analyses how these categories were further complicated by mismatched lexicons of textile terminology. While fibre movements referred overtly and directly to fabric, the coinciding art theory primarily described its functions and affectations. We talk about the ‘softness’ of Oldenburg’s sculptures, not the cloth that makes them.

This research argues that while there has been increasing scholarship surrounding these suppressed ‘craft’ textile practices, there is little exploration of the parallel and distinct material history of fabric within Western canonical Fine Art. The project addresses this asymmetry by focusing on the unspoken instances of cloth in mainstream twentieth century sculptural work and identifying the particular ways that artists have used this material. Artists have long employed the quotidian and shifting nature of textiles to convey ideas of instability, an impulse that can be traced back to Marcel Duchamp's 1913 work 3 Standard Stoppages.

In order to critically interrogate the existing histories of textiles in twentieth century sculptural practices, the historical narratives presented in a number of exhibitions and catalogues are investigated. These accounts are considered in relation to three case studies that examine instances of structural, spatial and temporal instability in which cloth disrupts and untethers notions of fixed forms and static spaces. Investigating these narratives highlights historical cloth omissions, allowing for an understanding of how amnesiatic textile gaps affect practitioners today.

My own cloth-based sculptural practice gives me a material authority and alternative perspective with which to question these received art historical narratives, and that in turn allows me to re-contextualise my decision to consistently work with this medium. My research-led practice centres on fabric objects that reference architectural forms; pieces that explore and exploit the unstable nature of cloth through their unfixed nature, and that I constantly reposition, resisting a final placement. By documenting these movements through photography and video, different temporalities are suggested, and a series of works that fluctuate between stasis and fluidity, order and chaos, are created. Accompanying these works are passages in the dissertation that reflectively a ddress the process of making and contending with the legacy of cloth.

This project argues that fabric has been under-recognised but widely used in sculptural practices for over a century. Through explicitly articulating this narrative, a richer historical context for works that use fabric can be ascertained, and the insufficient complement of textile language in contemporary artistic discourse can be redressed.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: W900 Others in Creative Arts and Design
Department: Faculties > Arts, Design and Social Sciences > Arts
Depositing User: Becky Skoyles
Date Deposited: 08 Oct 2018 10:43
Last Modified: 31 Jul 2021 22:37
URI: http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/id/eprint/36117

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