Saturday, March 30, 2013

Mary Schoeser – Textiles: The Art of Mankind
Book Review

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

There are a number of book reviews on this blogspot. For your convenience I have listed the other book reviews below:
The Pattern Base - Kristi O'Meara
Stitch Stories - Cas Holmes
Creative Strength Training - Jane Dunnewold

It is always difficult to write an impartial review of a book that contains some of your artwork. Moreover, it makes it harder when you have assisted the author in a very minor role to make links to other cloth artists or their bequests. I therefore need to clarify my association with Mary Schoeser before you read this review.

I have never met Mary Schoeser, but I was for a brief point in time in email contact with her. She asked me to email details of her book project to all the artists who featured in the exhibition that I curated (ArtCloth: Engaging New Visions) as well as to provide information of where she could procure images of Margo Lewers’ ArtCloth work. Of course, I was excited by her project and so I was more than happy to assist her in this minor role.

Prior to her contact, I was well aware of her expertise and authorship, having read two of her previous published works: World Textiles and Norma Starszakowna. Her friend - Norma Starszakowna - featured strongly in my exhibition. Mary Schoeser's understanding of the evolving journey of textiles and fabrics is without peer. Note: I usually categorize textiles as woven material, whereas fabrics may or may not be woven. However, for the sake of this review, I will use the word textile in a more generic sense that is usually encapsulated by the word fabric.

There are 1,058 color images in this book, with most artists having one or two images of their work. With the exception of a handful of artists, the book does not attempt to reflect a significant body of any artist’s work. This is not a criticism of the book, but rather just a fact. It was never intended to be a compendium of the lifelong contribution of various textile artists to their field.

Review: Mary Schoeser – Textiles: The Art of Mankind
(Thames & Hudson, New York, 2012.)

When I signed for this large package and unpacked it in my studio, I would never have imagined that Mary Schoeser’s initial request for couple of 300 dpi images and a short synopsis of textile artworks, would morph into a book weighing 3.2 kg, with a size of 28 x 23 x 5 cm, containing 568 pages and 1,058 color images. It is physically a large compilation!

Front Cover of Mary Schoeser's Book - Textiles: The Art of Mankind.

The title of her book - “Textiles: The Art of Mankind” - is in itself informing. There is an assertion that there is no art-craft divides, but rather there is a continuum of sorts and so to make them divisible is an artificial characterization. Her intention is not just to monitor today’s renaissance in textile art, but rather to strip away layers of superficiality in order to reach into the core essence of our act of engagement with textile arts and crafts. It enables her to juxtapose historical work with contemporary works, thereby highlighting the continuance of skill and daring. Furthermore, most of the selected textiles were handmade and those that were not had to show an imposed creativity on the machined output. It was the mindset of the creator imposed on the textile that was the criterion for selection for all of these works.

Norma Starszakowna, Voices in the Mother Tongue II (detail) 2003.
Appears in "Ingredients", Textiles: The Art of Mankind.

Schoeser purposely reduced the text to make way for a plethora of textile images. This is a strength rather than a weakness of the book. It speaks to you through your act of engagement with so many works and in doing so you become far more learned and less overwhelmed by the experience. Therefore it is a great visual and sensory resource that challenges your notion of what is conceptually possible in textile arts and crafts.

She has selected textile images (without knowing the hand of the cloth) with a very democratic mindset - for the most part, those internationally renowned textile artists are very well complemented by those who are not so well known. An artist's reputation is always an indicator of the ability to create a large body of work that fascinates an audience, but for the conceptual purpose of the book, it is the standalone textile image that must captivate the author's minds eye in order for it to be considered for selection. Therefore many textile artists are only featured once or twice in her book.

Books are planned and so they are not serendipitously invented. There is an underlying organizing principle behind every good book. If the organizing principle is incoherent, vague or contains contradictory elements, the book is off to a poor start. If the organizing principle that is enunciated is not adhered to or poorly applied - ditto.

Schoeser has organized her book around a number of carefully chosen themes, namely:
(i) Impact: Within this context she explores and examines - Context, Language, Legacy and Learning, Colour and Global Vision.

Margo Lewers, Orange Came Through,1975.
Appears in "Impact", Textiles: The Art of Mankind.
Image Courtesy of the Margo Lewers' Bequest.

Ingredients: Invention, Intentions, and Alchemy.

Jane Dunnewold, Etude 25: For Trumpet, Choir and Elinor (detail) 2011.
Appears in "Ingredients", Textiles: The Art of Mankind.

(iii) Structure: Tensioned Techniques, Looping, Knotting, Lacing, and Twisting, and Loom-Weaving.

Jun-ichi Arai, Untitled, ca. 1987-1993.
Appears in "Structure", Textiles: The Art of Mankind.

(iv) Surface: Yarns, Stitch, Painting and Printing.

Katherine Westphal Rossbach, Sheath Dress (detail) 1970.
Appears in "Surface", Textiles: The Art of Mankind.

(v) Added Dimensions: Letting the Cloth Speak, Patchwork and Quilting, and Textiles Parkour.

Ludwika Zytkiewicz-Ostrowska, Blue, 2007.
Appears in "Added Dimensions", Textiles: The Art of Mankind.

Imagery: Identity, Narrative, of Time and Place.

Els van Baarle, On The Road Again (detail) 2010.
Appears in "Imagery", Textiles: The Art of Mankind.
Photographer: Joop van Houdt.

Within each of these chapters and sub-topics she peppers her comments by directing you to some of the textile imagery and comments made by the textile artists in order to reinforce the rationale behind the selection of the textile and moreover, to try to unpack the concept that she is propounding. In doing so, she is forcing you to join the dots of the textile imagery that she has NOT commented on, but that is included in a particular chapter. In fact, by doing so she is acknowledging that the act of engagement is also your responsibility and not just hers. She is there to guide rather than to dictate to you what you “should” see and feel about every textile piece included in her book.

Her organizing principle - that works brilliantly for most part - nevertheless can fray at the edges. Inevitably you begin to ask:
(a) Why does so-and-so not appear in this book – especially in this section, which would have been a perfect illustration of what Schoeser was espousing?
(b) Why does so-and-so have five textile images in this chapter, when so-and-so, who should have at least that number, has only two? In other words, why is the weighting among some textile artists so disparate in terms of their contribution to the field?
(c) Who is so-and-so? Hmm, not sure of the work and how it fits.

Hence in some ways her selections and weighting of the works appear idiosyncratic, but that will always be the case when choices have to be made (see my selected images in this post). You need to engage with the artwork in order to have an opinion of its worth and its weight to the overall concept of the book. This is an activity she invites you to do.

These criticisms are small indeed in terms of the sheer complexity, richness and insightfulness of Mary Schoeser’s view of textile arts and crafts. I have been a curator for a number of textile exhibitions in Australia and inevitably the same questions have been posed to me. In one case the artist could not exhibit due to prior commitments and yet she would have been a perfect contributor to the exhibition. We will never know (nor should we) of those who could not participate in Mary Schoeser’s book project (due to a variety of reasons) as distinct from those who wanted to be included, but who Mary Schoeser determined would not fit within any of her themes. The mystery of "absence" is what makes this book so much more intriguing to the professional fiber artist, who shares somewhat with Mary a broad and comprehensive perspective of the field.

Art books can fail to sell because of their pricing and poor production. Neither one applies to this tome - yes it is a tome. I am amazed that so many images from a vast array of different sources reproduced so well in this publication. Nevertheless, in a few instances the juxtaposition of images on a crowded space has taken away the dramatic effect of each component image of a textile. You have to understand that for 30 years I was employed as a graphic designer and so undoubtedly I am hyper-critical on this score. Overall, the production team should be extremely proud of this book.

The book concludes with Notes, Further Reading, Resources and an Index. Even the rear end of the book provides a wealth of further information for exploration. Its aim is to substantiate your learning experience.

Mary Schoeser has stated that her aim is ” inspire textile artists, those who are new to collecting, and those whose choices will shape the future of textile arts”. She surely has done that - and more! A friend of mine, who is featured in the book remarked: “I'd rather be a player than a non-player”. That speaks volumes about the standing Mary Schoeser has amongst her peers.

Every textile student should have a copy of her book since it will help shape his or her creativity in textile arts and crafts. The past and present is what is showcased in the book, but it is the possible futures that she has stitched into the veins of her book that will make it a lasting contribution.

It sits proudly in my library among some of the finest books on textiles that I possess!


Anonymous said...

And I quote "Note: I usually categorize textiles as woven material, whereas fabrics may or may not be woven."
So knitted material eg t-shirting, is not textiles ?

Interesting definition and categorisation...

Joseph Pitcher said...

Nicely detailed review. A real insight for anyone interested in purchasing this wonderful book. Well done.

Jane Suffield said...

The book sounds like a very interesting and informative read, so I can't wait to get my hands on a copy!