Helen Kerr, Batik and Stitch, Oriel Gallery, Antrim, 1/5 – 30/6 2017 (and some others)

Curved Glass Self-portrait 1995


Sealed with molten wax, each colour is protected from another colour  during the process of dying different areas with different hues and tones. The wax resists any unintended spills…  consequently the composition is determined at early stages.   Kerr thinks of  the  batik   stage of the process  as a design, which after removal of the wax and cleaning of the fabric  becomes “ready as an artwork” ( gallery handout), often “enhanced with machine or hand stitch”. While this simply describes the three stages of Kerr’s art practice, it is likely to lead to an erroneous conclusion that  the staining of a ground  cannot be art already, and that there is a hierarchy between the batik and the stitch. In comparison, another artist stained a canvas carrying a charcoal drawing with a confidence  rooted in inventive uncertainty.  It would appear that the way artists think of techniques is wonderfully (mostly) avoiding a norm.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) developed her soak-stain technique  as sufficient to make ” beautiful paintings of landscapes” reminiscing that they   “were in my arms as I did it … I was trying to get at something – I didn’t know what until it was manifest.” Here, color takes a primary role in defining  the forms of landscape  sketchily outlined in charcoal.

Mountain and Sea, 1952, oil and charcoal on canvas, 7 x 10 ft


Helen Kerr thinks of art as the stage after removing the wax.  Helen Frankenthaler  treats all stages as art. Including  what is remembered from an experience in the world.  Yet – when I walked through Kerr’s installation, the images on the walls were evoking  her being there, observing and remembering.

Midnight Garden, 1997, detail


A suggestion made once by Immanuel Kant  comes to mind:”Look closely. The beautiful may be small.”


Slow turning tide, 2014. detail

By utilitarian removal of what was necessary,  a design  becomes art,  in a process reminiscent of alchemy.  Moreover – that art is “often enhanced” by  intervention of a needle work, machine or handmade.

Helen Kerr, Detail of stitches

Two question arose: until the 20th C  the textile art/ embroidery, weaving etc / has been traditionally relegated out of so called High Art, Beaux Arts, Fine Art. Embroidery was understood as a lesser art, a term  William Morris  used in the published version of his lecture The Decorative Arts  given to the Trades Guild of Learning in London, in 1877.  It was not published until 1882  as Hopes and Fears for Art.   Morris  connected these “lesser arts” with a strong useful role to “beautify the familiar matters of everyday life” and placed them in a separation between “greater arts and work”. He calls for a “new art of conscious intelligence” made under the auspices of nature and history.

At present – the normative thinking that Morris both accepted and challenged is weakened by artists and institutions.  At the current Documenta  14 – there is a whole room given to a Sami textile artist from Sweden, her Historja (2003 – 2007) . I do not have an image of Historja;  this one  below illustrates the scale   in which Britta Marakatt – Labba combines print, embroidery, applique, and wool.



Her Historja reminded me of another female textile artist – working in Belfast (www.irenemacwilliam.co.uk) who prefers quilting and embroidery for historical and political subjects drawn from recent events, e.g. Japan Earthquake.  In a nod to Bayeux Tapestry?

MacWilliam  used  six different techniques: painting and stumping, sun printing, digital printing, machine applique and free machine quilting.

These objects of sensible wills (Immanuel Kant) are not reducible to determinate concepts, because no concept  alone is adequate to produce art.

Textile arts have a particular access to sensuality  – whether they end up as useful object or art object or both at once:


There was a revival of large scale  textile art  in the second half of the 20th C – not only at Abusson but also in central Europe, in Brno, Czech Republic.

It was called Art Protis (http://www.artprotis.com/technik.htm).  Its technique was akin a  painting, except that it was made with dyed wool placed on a dark woven ground and then stitched over in a carpet making machine the hold the composition/ image in place.



One of the early enthusiasts about Art Protis was the famous Czech illustrator and filmmaker/ animator Jiri Trnka.

Jiri Trnka, Art Protis, 1969

Trnka is more known for designing puppets and filming animations like the Midsummer Night Dream in 1959.

Sen noci svatojanské

It still may be on You Tube…. I understand it as a gift to children and adults alike – a rare achievement in contemporary art.

There used to be every two years an international exhibition in Lausanne (1962 -1995) devoted to Fibre Art – which  includes many different techniques, old and freshly invented alike (see http://www.bienale.lt/2011/?p=391&lang=en)

To sum up – textile art has established itself  firmly as  free of the label “lesser arts”  without necessarily returning to the expensive techniques labelled as tapestries/ gobelins, and by  benefiting from the openness of the current system of art.



About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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