The subversive stitch

One of the most revealing aspects of Dilys Dowswell’s review of the two exhibitions which formed ‘The Subversive Stitch’ (Issue No.24), was the language she used to contrast the historical documentation of embroidery at the Whitworth Art Gallery with the work of contemporary women shown at the Cornerhouse, Manchester: the Cornerhouse show was ‘inhospitable’ by comparison to the ‘blandishments’ of the Whitworth show.

Seeing textiles in terms of its not affording shelter (OED) on the one hand, or in terms of its ability to flatter or coax (OED) on the other, exudes the ‘femininity’ the writer seems to mourn throughout her review: domesticity at one end, coquetry at the other. Blandishment/flattery evokes the dependent relationship of which it is such an important feature, while the search for hospitality recalls the paradigm of the female body/person. Is the identification of femininity and textiles so complete here that there is no room for women to problematise that relationship, to expand it or explode it even? Or at the very least to make it their own?

If we are to use such language, we must at least do so knowingly: informed of and by the connotations and role of language both within the particular discourses (in this case art/craft/textiles/femininity) and also the society of which the discourses are a part. If only there had been a trace of irony in Dilys Dowswell’s words. It is important, when faced with work which articulates women’s experience and creativity in the way this show does, that we are aware of how we are positioned in relation to it. We cannot be (or want to be) passive recipients of readymades. I do not feel that Dilys Dowswell knows or includes her own angle of vision: it’s as if she was there but not available to be challenged, never mind discomforted or disturbed, by the work. This means that a very limited range of meanings and experiences are thus available to her, and via the review to her readers. This is not good enough, in 1988, and in one of our too few feminist art journals. What do we mean by feminist in this context? What is the purpose of a review?


If we judge from Dilys Dowswell’s words (and carry her own imagery forward) she is looking for fun rather than a meaningful relationship. ‘Not much fun is being had here, nor anywhere else in this exhibition’. She is looking for ‘true emotion’, for works of art which are ‘lovely and powerful’, ‘exquisite’, ‘dyed and stitched to perfection’ (all of which she does find). Surely what we have here is a search for Romance? Unfortunately this search, fuelled by preconceived ideas about women/textiles/art, inevitably results in her missing much of the beauty and power of the actual exhibition. This is necessarily not the beauty and power so visibly part of patriarchal culture, but something very different which strives to challenge those very concepts. The beauty and power here lies in particular in the exhibition’s active relation to art/textiles/women within the context of malestream culture, and not just in its materials and methods.

For example, the way in which she wipes out Lyn Malcolm’s work by describing it in terms of its stitchery and ‘witty’ ‘feminist purpose’ was depressing–a double stereotyping of work which is highly layered and informed by experience, theory, and debate. This sort of comment does not review the work, through lack of engagement with it, and therefore does not help others see the work in relation to some of its contexts.

As this is not a review, I will try to contribute to the dialogue about ‘The Subversive Stitch’ by recounting my experience of two pieces only, one wall piece and one floor piece. I am not implying thereby that these are ‘the best’ pieces in the show, but that they are consonant with the aims of the exhibition, which are at issue in Dilys Dowswell’s review, and those aims are important to me.

Pale Armistice by Rozanne Hawksley is a wreath composed of chamois leather gloves with a spray of lilies. Flickering with movement, it is also, as a visual symbol, a still, silent indictment more telling than torrents of words. It works visually: fingers, touching, waving, stroking, stilled in death, twisted in use and gesture. Not just material (skin) and objects (gloves and lilies) but memory and meaning are concentrated in this simple circle–itself a long-standing symbol in our society (the wreath), emblem of glory and sorrow (thus bringing together the world of men and the world of women).

In this piece, as in many others, the materials speak in a way which is different from painting: the softness and skinness of chamois leather. And colour signifies through absence. But this is not just a visual, physical object. As an art object it re-presents cultural values and practices, for example the significance in our culture/history of the glove and hand: the latter agency of touch, of holding, greeting, making, the former of protection, disguise, decorum, ‘civilisation’, ceremony, formality. There is tension in Pale Armistice between the formality of a wreath and the worn gloves. The way in which public and personal experience’ and ritual are here enmeshed, exposes the intimacy and drama of that relation, and makes it available to us to reflect on. So many questions raised by experience, by memory, by this textile object in this context.

This is perhaps one common aim of all the artists represented: they do want us to think/feel, not only about their work in its physicality or its exhibition presence, but also about the issues raised by that work. They can send us back into our society with a little extra to work with. My second example is Anne Lydiat’s floor piece, Ironing out the Wrinkles. In contrast to Pale Armistice it is dramatic, both in materials (a white apron lying on two sheets of corrugated steel tied together with red ribbon, and a flat iron standing at one corner), and in the relation which it seeks to dramatise. Here too we face the world of women and the world of men, but this time starkly opposed.

Her grandmother’s white apron is spreadeagled on the two sheets of corrugated steel, and the corrugations shape and disturb the surface of the apron. The apron is slightly transparent and almost clings to the shiny cold steel: it is all vulnerability and yet dominates the area of the steel. It is such a bodily image, with apron strings outstretched, you ‘miss’ a head, and its warmth is not simply the warmth of cloth as opposed to metal, but the warmth of a working woman’s body, a mother/nurse/domestic servant.

Anne Lydiat requires us to mobilise memory and imagination. Both are essential Memory is important in tracing our own pasts, and imagination enables us to build connections between the lives of different women separated by time, place, culture and power. Without this connecting our feelings may stop at nostalgia, our actions remain politically ineffective.

‘The Subversive Stitch’ and the aesthetic actions contained within it seek this political effectiveness: a dialogue at the very least. We are used to glancing at objects and passing on. The objects of ‘The Subversive Stitch’ together invite engagement not contemplation, and not just engagement with the objects themselves, but necessarily with both our most hidden selves and with our most public selves, in order to establish our collective identity as women and as artists.

To return to Anne Lydiat’s piece: as women it seems to me we are able (must?) identify with the apron–the living, working body which services others–as opposed to the steel/man-made material. But we are also enabled through this artwork to identify with the artist, and this is our ‘victory’, our joy and excitement. In engaging with the artist’s creativity through the work, we find and assert our own: this is the subversive stitch. ‘Femininity’ is subverted in order to be reclaimed and enjoyed.

We must ask: how do these images and objects work? Who for? (Women, children, men, artists, non-artists?) Are they useful to us? Are they pleasurable? (And these two are not so separate: there is, for example, pleasure in learning, in not repeating our mistakes!) Dilys Dowswell finished her review on a patronizing note: ‘But they must be more cheerful about it …’ Is this really the best we can do faced with a large show of contemporary work by women in a prestigious venue? There is no indication in Dilys Dowswell’s review that she is even aware of the politics of the event itself, what a landmark it is. There is much to smile with and celebrate here. For women, being cheerful was/is all too often about putting a face on … about powerlessness. A feminist agenda is first concerned with demystification, then with redefining in terms which include women at our own value: evidence of these processes can be seen in ‘The Subversive Stitch’. Let’s engage in a dialogue rather than dismiss.


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