Fabric of the Building: the material-led art of Alice Fox

The composer Morton Feldman is supposed to have said to his students ‘If you haven’t got an artist for a friend you’re in trouble’. Feldman could call on a number of the great names of American abstract expressionist art as his friends, and it’s possible he was counted too as a friend by some of these illustrious painters. Friendship between creative people can be supportive and enriching, not least as a mutual sounding board, a way of obtaining critical reaction with the safety net of trust and respect usually founded upon shared knowledge of context and method.

Hands, calico and stitch in linen thread - photo by Caroline Evens

Once physical communities of artists came together informally on a day-to-day basis; in the studio, in the street, in the café, in the home. This still happens of course, but we now have an additional and potentially valuable meeting place: the virtual community of the Internet and the artist’s blog. Artists are becoming practiced in sharing the detail of their creative journeys, the nitty-gritty of discovery, experience, failure, influence. We know what books lie beside their beds, where they travelled last weekend, even what they cooked for tea. With the aid of a digital camera and the application of an hour or so at the computer an artist can use the blogging medium as a way of posting a regular report on artistic progress and process. This is often undertaken as a means of making a self-explanation of where work is going to; it can be a valuable form of both self-criticism and self-knowledge. The premise of such revelation, judiciously managed by making reference to techniques or the work of other colleagues, can quickly build an international community of interest. For some artists their blog is solely focused at their work, even to the extent of safeguarding their anonymity, though this is increasingly rare. Others, and these seem to be in the ascendant, demonstrate how their practice (what a loaded word that is) integrates with the minutiae of their daily life. There’s also lot of showing off; who we met, where we’ve been, when the next significant exposure of work will be. That said, there are out there in the bloggesphere occasional examples of sustained engagement with the medium that have the potential of adding a layer of informal interpretation that can enhance and enrich a viewer’s experience of an artist’s work.

In the past artists wrote letters to each other – constantly. These letters, like most blogs, reveal the commonplace that surrounds an artist’s daily life, but also contain flashes of profundity and revelation; they engage the imagination in a way few blogs will ever do. What an artist says to a single reader is unlikely to be thought appropriate to anonymous blog readers. Here is Cézanne writing to a young artist:

. . . I have perhaps come too early. I was the painter of your generation more than of my own . . . You are young, you have vitality; and you will impart to your art a vitality which only those who have emotion can give. I. I feel I am getting old. I shall not have the time to express myself . . . Let’s work! . . .

            Perception of the model and its realization are sometimes very long in the coming . . .

Paris 13 January, 1897

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 This piece, written here for the bloggesphere, attempts a critique. It looks at a body of work devised for public exhibition within the constraints of an academic course of study. It is a final show of work, the result of some five years of mostly part-time study. It is a mark in the sand, a point of temporary arrival in the journey of artistic making and creating. It embodies taught and guided practice embracing the many, many aspects considered by the UK’s lively and imaginative academic community necessary for a newly emerging artist to sustain a presence in the prevailing culture of the visual arts.

Fabric of the Building by Alice Fox is a collection of work devised under the quite strict conditions of academic study. It doesn’t pay lip service to such conditions, rather the contrary: it embraces them in the spirit of professional constraint that a working artist often finds themselves placed under. As a result it has purpose, strength and the promise of a continuum of practice that engages the viewer to ask both why? and how? Its very presentation and intrinsic nature places the viewer in a questioning frame of mind. It doesn’t reference itself easily; it isn’t comfortably populated by recognizable motifs and content. There’s the absolute minimum of interpretation or critique. It doesn’t come with a story, a life experience, the influence of a place, time or object. It is an environment for the viewer’s imagination to populate from the personal hard disk of memory and association. This runs against what we have taken as a way of interpreting visual art. We’ve come to expect both commentary and critique to flavour and guide the imagination.

Leonardo's Mona Lisa

Oscar Wilde in his book on The Critic as Artist describes how his appreciation and pleasure of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was enhanced by this description by Walter Pater.

Pater wrote: Set in its marble chair in that cirque of fantastic rocks, as if in some faint light under the sea.

Wilde’s extended commentary reads: She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire she has been dead many times and learned the secrets of the grave: and she has been a diver in the deep seas and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants.

In some sense what Alice Fox begins to achieve here is an engagement with the very essence of what makes an image we can take into ourselves. Perhaps you can’t write about this work as some kind of imaginary construct (as Wilde and Pater did about the Mona Lisa)? What makes that essence is the material itself, the means of its making, the interaction and intervention of object and manual action and process. What is intriguing is that the material and its marks made seem to offer the viewer both imaginative space and opportunity – along with a simple delight in engaging with what Roger Fry described as something ‘independent of the subject of the work or its emotional impact . . . how things are made.’

Still Life with Compotier - Cezanne

When Fry wrote about the painting of Cézanne he began his discussion of Still Life with Compotier by describing the application of paint.

He wrote: “Instead of those brave swashing strokes of the brush or palette knife [that Cézanne had used earlier], we find him here proceeding by the accumulation of small touches of a full brush.”  So here we learn how he painted and with what tools; we can suddenly find ourselves imagining the work being painted.

Fry assembled in his critical writing a toolkit to analyse the painterly work, a toolkit one can apply to many different art forms. These he identified as colour, line, light and dark, volume, mass and composition. He asks his readers to join him on a journey of discovery into the very heart of what, in rather a scientific way, makes a painting what it is. He doesn’t negate the imaginative response, rather he fuels our imaginations further, makes them keener. We come closer to the artist. Through analysis we enter the world of his/ her own very thoughts. Fry helps us bypass contextual commentary and draws us into a play of tangible details rather than what his imagination might supply as interpretation. We become active rather than passive viewers.

In viewing Fabric of the Building there appear to be no guiding titles (although a price list – not displayed – contains basic identifiers). There is nothing except the work itself to provide external triggers for the imagination. The images, some 48 of them in different media, are presented to the viewer without verbal intervention. There seems a complete absence of Ekphrasis (that time-honoured device used to illustrate a possible real or imagined meaning of an art object – ex. the description of the shield of Achilles in the Illiad). What you see is what is there: material and the action of print and stitch, folding, binding, embossing and experimental dyeing, and the outcomes of algorithmic programming of virtual stitch.

In the space containing Fox’s work the pieces are gathered together in areas that draw the viewer to see  a set of collected outcomes based on material and action.  There are five areas in all: Wall 1 – twenty-five squares of thick felt 30cm by 30cm, Wall 2 – 9 squares of thinner felt 30cm by 30cm, Impressions of Stitch – a collection of nine paper squares 30cm by 30cms. 3 pieces titled Folded Wall 1 (felt), 2 and 3 (in silk), animated digitally processed images in a back-lit digital picture frame 22cm by 18cm titled Fabric of the Building.

Wall 1 from Fabric of the Building by Alice Fox (sketch by Nigel Morgan)

The 25 thick felt squares are assembled across the join of two adjacent walls. Titled in the artist’s price list as Wall 1 each square can be clearly perceived as relating to specific types of making processes with print and stitch. Print is mainly a collection of hand-manipulated screen images that embody the action of drawing, many of the line-based forms having a gesture and flow of a drawn sketch. Some squares contain overlays of these printed drawn gestures made apparent by different tones and a minimal use of colour. Colour composition is frugal: not so much muted as played down, not restrained so much as not attention-seeking. This is Colour to differentiate rather than to excite. Referencing the Farrow & Ball colour card (as we are clearly in architectural territory here) Pointing (2003), Lime White (1) Bible Black (225), and Slipper Satin (2004) would be close to Fox’s vocabulary of colours.

Line is always evident as solely ‘line’ across or within a surface. In these squares we often perceive line as we do contours on a map, a running stitch across a fabric surface. Lines are sometimes contained in the square, its ends present. In others, lines enter and exit the felted space. The felted square can become as a view from window, a map or aerial photo, a marked tile, the accidental accretions of note-book doodling, or tracks of man or beast across snow or tundra. The very difference in stitch type provides a lively vocabulary of forms and, if one speaks the language of stitch, knowing its references and associations may act as a prompt for the imagination. Evidence of design development in the artist’s sketchbooks  suggest the following stitches were explored and some are presented variously in the final outcomes: back-stitch, stem stitch, blanket stitches, chain stitches, feather stitch,  bullion and fly stitch, running stitches, straight satin stitch. In the final pieces the predominant stitches were straight stitch and bullion stitch.

The play and composition of Light and Dark is formed by densities and intersections of print with stitch. Sometimes the stitch follows and emboldens the print, pulling it out of the texture to both lighten and darken: both to accent, and to mute.

Volume is described in the containment and organisation of printed forms. It is either rich and full of the accidental or gathered into perceivable and distinct shapes: clearly defined journeys with stitch.

Mass and Space are never in confusion but speak clearly in each square to the viewer. This is achieved in a variety of ways. They are engagingly and playfully balanced as one follows trajectory paths of viewing from square to another – up and down, side to side and in diagonals.

As for Composition, it is difficult for the viewer to feel that the coming together of these felt squares is anything but temporary and (again) playful; that the whole sequence, if that’s what it is, could easily be something else, a wholly different pattern and arrangement. This is like looking at a forest floor from day to day. The elements of a viewed patch may retain prevailing features, but a chance rain shower, a passing animal, a gust of wind rearranges but does not fundamentally alter our perception of the elements in a viewed space. Grass, earth, leaves, vegetable matter, animate intervention, the passing of day to night are all in constant play. This is how a naturalist views the organic world, basically acknowledging the same scene, but always aware of the slightest different. And it is these differences that matter in our knowledge of this dynamic world.

Nine 'Sails' of Wall 2 - stitch and print from Fabric of the Building by Alice Fox (sketch by Nigel Morgan)

Wall 2 is an arrangement of felt pieces that ‘sail’ on tensile grids of wire. ‘Sailing’ because the whole structure of 9 pieces has the aspect of square rigged canvas in a stout breeze. The felt, thinner than used in Wall 1, is stretched and billows outwards. We can also see behind the outward facing image as the hanging technique places the felt squares far enough away from the wall to allow viewing. This approach gives a sculptural and dynamic quality to the work and reveals a view of stitch the viewer rarely sees. Colour, through the intervention and evolution of natural dyeing processes, features more prominently here and the patterning appears to be the result of strange, unusual interventions that come from binding the felt with cords to produce lined patterns and forms where the dye has not been allowed to infiltrate.

Impressions of Stitch is the third collection in the viewer’s left to right route through the work as a whole. It is at once  most mysterious and cerebral. Paper squares hang from little brass bulldog clips. Paper yarn has been stitched in and around embossed patterns – made from the relief of stitch itself. This is a surface that responds to three-dimensional stitch in a play of shadows. The viewer doesn’t stand still with this work, but unconsciously moves to take in the shadow play of standing stitches in paper thread.

Impressions of Stitch and Folded Wall 1 by Alice Fox (sketch by Nigel Morgan)

There are three pieces sharing the title Folded Wall. There is an ambitious coming together of some thirty or more small (6-10cm) and irregularly shaped felt planes covered with printed ‘drawn’ gestures. These felt planes are prominently machine-stitched on their edges and joins in chocolate brown linen and cotton using a zig-zag stitch; they fall downwards and outwards from a height of six foot encompassing an area equivalent to the viewer’s upper body. You find yourself staring into the heart of it, deciphering what feels like stitched and printed messages appearing at all angles from the structure. It is has something of Cornelia Parker’s exploded forms about it, though caught in fabric rather than in a photograph. Aligned with this, Folded Wall pieces 2 and 3 come together as a compositional whole. It’s presented like an after-word to the viewer’s journey across the exhibition space. These are pieces in silk: folded, discretely dyed, again falling across and down, fragile and engagingly tactile.

The final component of Fabric of the Building carries its name as a title. It is a back-lit projection in a domestic digital photo-frame. The material is the stitch: scanned and organised to appear on an invisible grid driven by an algorithmic process. As the viewer looks at the screen black ‘virtual’ stitches appear involuntary one at a time, and at different speeds to populate a white background. There often seems no rhyme or reason to their progress and evolution. Stitched forms grow and then stitch by stitch disappear. If this had been played on an I-Pad hand-held tablet the viewer might have achieved, possibly,  a richer sensation and relationship. This framing on the wall of such an active representation of the stitch in action gives off a detachment and disembodiedness which seems at odds with the personal relationship an embroiderer has with stitched  material and stitch itself. A larger projection of this work surrounding a join between two wall surfaces was possibly more successful, but was not in physical proximity to the other exhibited work.

Alice Fox has commented that choice of material has been a key part of the evolution of this her final degree project. Felt was chosen partly for its sustainability, but also because of its non-woven structure being very close to that of paper. Colour was developed from the natural colours of wool. So it is these materials that have undoubtedly provoked the work and yet their qualities and identities seem undiminished by her artistic intervention.

Fabric of the Building enjoys, significantly, a simultaneous presentation as website images and interpretation, with a sustained blog diary kept throughout the artist’s final (full-time) academic year and introduction to other recently exhibited work. Together these elements (not I think to be thought of as additions, but integral) makes for a powerful statement of artistic intent. In web media the artist is revealed as observer, as recorder, as inventor, as originator, as commentator. And all this is part of a life-lived, an outcome of a personal history only partially revealed, a love (indeed a joy) of the chaotic patterning of natural forms embedded in both the conscious and unconscious. It speaks of what it is to engage with the hand, material and eye in a counterpoint of action and invention.

Alice Fox is showing Fabric of the Building at New Designers at The Business Design Centre, London N1  between Wednesday 29 June and 2 July and on the web.

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