Saturday, 22 March 2014

Stitching in Seville

Seville had long been on my bucket list, but no more. Last week – did anyone miss me—hubby pried the embroidery hoop from my hand and whisked us out of the cold rains pelting northern Europe into the rejuvenating sun of Andalusia.

Spain's ultra-modern trains make travel a pleasure

Even on a much-needed break from stitching, embroidery often seems to pursue me as we travel.  I bump into it even when I am not looking for it.  Seville was no exception.

Our hotel, a former convent, was decorated in a style best described as “acquisitive.”  The owners liked an object, bought it, and then hung or plopped it into some available bare spot. So over the years, a jumble of oil paintings, secular and religious, tile tableaux, and ceramic plates, meandered onto the walls of the dining room, lobby, and 15th century courtyards, formed by monastic cells that are now guest rooms.
As fate would have it, in the patio, high above our window, hung a large framed embroidery, the only one in the entire hotel. The piece was a silk chasuble, hand embroidered, as best I could make out metres away across the void. The spot the hotel’s owners had misguidedly allocated to it caught the strong Spanish sun which is so damaging to skin and silk.  

An embroidered treasure decorating our hotel

The work must have been vibrant once. Regrettably, bleaching had already set in.  

Close-up of silk embroidery in long-short stitch

That apart, I found it gratifying that the owner of this eclectic collection had chosen an embroidery to display as Spanish art, like paintings and ceramics. Where had it come from no one in the hotel seemed to know. And there were more mysterious embroideries to come.

On an evening strolling through the old part of the city looking for a tapas dinner, we stumbled up on three huge store fronts displaying gold-work tassels, trimmings, frogs, appliqués and badges.  Admittedly, some pieces may have been machine made. But everything was quality, intricate, and for sale.  A monogram might set you back 50 euros or $65. 

Seville‘s residents may live in an ancient city, but their street dress is as modern and secular as anywhere else in 21st Century Europe. In fact, it is quite conservative in color and cut. So what drove the demand for this ultra baroque decoration, heavy on royal and religious emblems?

The shop was packed. Hubby elected to remain outside, avoiding the crush.  Undeterred, I squeezed in among women of all ages who were examining threads, fabrics and trims. Talk about culture shock!  I was catapulted back to an era when battalions of courteous staff served customers from across wooden counters onto which they unfurled bolts of cloth from stacks behind them. I had not experienced this since my childhood.  Not speaking Spanish, I signed that I was just looking. They weren’t bothered and let me press on. There was much serious consultation underway. And most of the cloth being bought was plain and cream colored, not brocaded or heavily embroidered.  I maneuvered my way further into the embroidery section, where bolts and bolts of DMC cloth and a complete range of threads were on offer too. I was intrigued, but not enlightened.

Gold-work cloth on display in a Seville store window

The answers to my many silent questions came on our city bus tour the next day. During Holy Week, which culminates on Easter Sunday, Seville celebrates big time. Through districts of the city, Baroque statues of Christ and Mary, dressed in heavy golden brocades, are paraded on platforms adorned in heavy gold embroidery. The most renowned of these is La Macarena, which you can see on YouTube.

Processions of bands and social societies, cloaked in capes bearing heavily embroidered badges, follow behind.  The women in the fabric shop were buying material and badges to make the devotional costumes. And gold work badges and ornaments must have been to decorate religious statues in chapels or platforms on which they are carried through the streets.  

Once again, my interest in needlework had led me on a mini-adventure. This time I was given a glimpse of how a rich decorative tradition survives in a thoroughly contemporary society. Thread, it seems, does have a life that continues to unreel into the future. And I hope to continue following it for a bit longer too.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

And a side dish of needlework to go

This week’s wander around the web led me to Sotheby’s.  I’d drop into reputation-making art venues if I lived near any.  Instead, I rely on virtual visits to keep me  abreast of how the material world is changing as I age in it.

Sotheby’s didn’t disappoint.  A rummage through their catalog for “needlework” unearthed the 2013 sales results for 18th and 19th century embroidery.  They performed well,  with pieces raking in between ₤250 and ₤35,000.  I’ve made a mental note to handle my embroideries more carefully.  In the future they might yet hold some value for a yet-to-be-born  great-great-grandchild, struggling to pay university fees.

An auction at Sotheby's
My hunt for embroidery also dredged up a work, which comes under the hammer at Sotheby’s later this month, by Iranian artist Farhad Ahrarnia. It’s an inconvenience, I know, but you’ll have to click through to see it.

BEAUTY IS THE SILENCE OF RUINS V doesn’t claim to be embroidery.  Ahrarnia  printed a digital photograph on fabric and added needles and stitching. The work is really a collage, or that is what my college art lecturer would have called it.  A contemporary gallery might label it a multi-media piece; a digi-kid would call it a “mash up.”   To me it’s a mishmash: photo cum Malevich cum thread. I don’t know what to make of it.

A bit more surfing lands me at the Rose Issa Gallery in London, where I read  an artistic statement for Farhad Ahrarnia:

Through the act of appropriation and needlework, Ahrarnia explores the various tensions that arise when contemporary Iranians attempt to negotiate and reconcile deep-rooted traditions with the force and consequences of modernity. His practice exists at the cusp of craft and informal architecture, whereby he applies the core principles of architecture as a means to probe the semiotics of culture and power in society

As an embroiderer I find the phrase “act of appropriation” interesting.  The artist wants me to understand the “semiotics of culture” i.e. the signs of culture and power.  That’s pretty heavy stuff. But then with contemporary art, I find, it’s often the stuff in the catalog that makes the work “interesting”   or even more important, comprehensible.  

I chuckle to myself. Just weeks ago, I blogged about  embroidery being co-opted by advertising to convey subliminal messages. I'm on to something. 

Is Ahrarnia’s co-opting technique ground-breaking in the art world?  Not really.  A few years back, I stumbled across a photographer in my hometown that did something similar.  

Photo and embroidery by Annette van Waaijen

 Annette van Waaijen embroidered underwear on her tasteful photographs of (previously) naked women sitting around a swimming pool or dressing.They sold out.

Photo with embroidery by Annette van Waaijen

By “appropriating” embroidery, these two artist-photographers use thread as a “shocking” material.  One doesn't expect a traditional medium, in the context of digital modernity. I’ll grant you Ahrarinia’s message, once it’s been explained,  is ”deep”, while van Waaijen’s is breezy. I leave you to decide if either would co-opt your wall space or wallet.

And then, there is Michael Raedecker, a Dutch painter working in London, who combines embroidery with acrylic. 

Hydrengeas by Michael Raedecker

His uses embroidery more subtley. Thread works with the paint, giving texture, much as as impasto might. Based on an exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague a few years ago, I suspect Raedecker is probably not bad as an embroiderer either. 

Taken together, these three artists bring home to embroiderers, once again,  a very hard reality. To be crass, much contemporary embroidery, on its own, doesn’t garner the artistic acclaim or cold cash that these combo works have achieved.  

Boetti’s canvases and antique samplers aside, in today’s multi-billion-dollar art market, needlework is more of a condiment or a side-dish. It is not a staple for an artist's existence.  To be sure,  interesting exceptions crop up, but that’s something for another blog.