"Yard Goods", Lisa Robertson, essay from the exhibition catalogue Embroidered Monochrome Propositions and Other New Work, published by the Western Front, Vancouver, 2002
I know a young person who learned to write before learning to read, and who began to write with the needle before writing with the quill. Of all the letters she first wanted only to make O's. She incessantly made big and little O's, O's of all sizes, O's inside one another, and always drawn backward. Unfortunately, one day when she was busy with this useful exercise, she saw herself in a mirror; and finding that this constrained attitude was not graceful for her, like another Minerva she threw away the pen and no longer wanted to make O's. Her brother did not like to write any more than she did, but what irritated him was the discomfort and not the appearance it gave him. The little girl was refined and vane. She did not stand for her linen being used by her sisters. Others marked it for her; they no longer wanted to mark it. She had to learn how to mark it herself. The rest of her progress can easily be conceived.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile (1)
With a deft flick, as if turning inside out an iron-on decorated t-shirt before laundering, Kathy Slade's new work inverts the Kleinian ambition for a transparent immateriality. Slade's gesture reveals rather the opacity of the immaterial, the thready thickness of nothingness. With solemn pageantry her digitalized stitches populate the void. Here the craft of application is not rejected in a purely conceptual negation of the retinal and the expressive, but translated to computer code -- O's and 1's -- and stitched out by soft-ware driven factory machinery in a florid intensification of the pun of naught. Applied threads double cloth; structure and surface no longer can be differentiated. In fact, they are the same. Weave, felt, stitch, lace, ribbon, thread; each of these words in both a noun and a verb. Textile proves that the dialectic is not universal. Here its two terms don't meet in a synthesis -- they repeat in a rhythmic series, conflating structure with the extensibility of surface, or even dissolving the propriety of structure as an authored figure. This is a very useful ploy. Whether in architectural or allegorical installation, the habitual ideological subordination of surface to structure becomes obsolete. What Klein says of colour -- "tainted, humiliated, conquered" (2) we can now say of structural hierarchies. A pompom is pure surface twisted. The origin of the world is string, not the word. (3)
The referents multiply: Klein, yes, but as evidently Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Nets, those radically free matrices of dots; the vulnerable and austere grids of Agnes Martin; Laurence Sterne's mournful ink monochrome in Tristam Shandy; (4) and the cloying pedagogical vignette of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Not to mention the ubiquitous cypher of pornography. Slade slips her female hand into absence as if it were a puppet. The resulting theatre is like the very best pornography, or myth; minimal, at the same time floridly allegorical, and scathingly satirical of political conditions.
The politics she refers to are the recurrent figurations of gender on the field on the social. The story has indolently remained much the same for some time. The girl is trained into femininity and its acceptable deployment. The feminized inutility of decorative gesture and embellishment is aligned with the unreliability and vanity of the surface. Their application is associated with the squandering of sacred time. In the sacral economy of the family or the institution, each marking ought to inaugurate a structural profit. Typically, feminine desire is either sublimated to serve this function, or is pushed aside as the valueless and pathological remnant. This structural remaindering or voidance is necessary adjunct to the sincerity of the masculine subject: for to double or multiply originating sincerity would amount to structural taboo; the authoritative and engendering monad would be broken. That a feminist argument against such closed logic must continue to assert itself is as evident as it is ludicrous; that Slade carries it out with such effortless style is a rare joy. She allegorizes the originating metaphysical concept; the emptied philosophical neant as figured by the graphic symbol looses its claim to mannish expressive singularity and is remounted as a kind of loopy, satirical lace. Naught's a new emblem, tipping towards digital proliferation. Slade inflates sincerity.
The work is undeniably allegorical in both conception and installation: it shows, in Joel Fineman's terms "a symbolic progress that lends itself to spatial projection." (5) Interpretation desires allegory; the doubled trope of symbol and interpretative desire itself causes or inaugurates the structural or spatial effect. In his essay "The Structure of Allegorical Desire" Fineman describes how this "desire for allegory ... is implicit in the the idea of structure itself and explicit in criticism that directs itself towards the structurality of literature." In a deft critical maneuvre on Rousseau, a kind of advanced cutwork that is itself defiantly allegorical in its super-extension of the foundational metaphor of the seamstress, Slade wittily deflects Rousseauian pedagogical chastisement by multiplying the referentiality of the symbolic. She cuts and loops the progress of the narrative so that the banishment from decorative pleasure rhythmically repeats like a little death. In this lucid augury, punishment's function inverts. Everything nearly means something else. As soon as the neant ceases to be a singularity it becomes pornographic. That is, as in pornography, meaning distributes itself in a proliferating series, a kind of errantly erotic flow never quite achieving its object. The emblem extends its repeating pattern; desire becomes spatial projection. Whatever act wants itself, repeated as abstraction, as its own end? The decorative act. This is delightful heraldic pornography stitched out on linen.
But at the same time it's a reserved and caring iteration of the mourning ritual, where the vulnerable materiality of cloth -- shroud or winding cloth or mourning embroidery -- receives the imprint of the mortal body, doubles it, in an ephemeral proto-photography. Such tenderness and respect enters this work through the threshold of the O also. Recall the traditional social function of women as attendants of corporal transition. This transition's marking and articulation with textile in funerary ritual accounts for the earliest manifestations of embroidered cloth. (6) And what might Slade's embroideries mourn? Perhaps it is the still ubiquitous translation of girls' identities from giddy, self-involved pleasure seekers, to womanly domestic economists or laundresses. Perhaps the embroideries mourn the simple untimeliness and fidelity of mortality, showing the relation of decorated textile to painted vanitas. Finally we can't know -- like all minimal works, they keep their secrets, spelling out nothing. Their discretion is both semiotic and compositional.
Yet there's something blithe as well as melancholic about the monochrome's secretiveness. Is its abolishment of the relation of figure to field, or indeed its squandering of any compositional tension, as recondite as it appears? In Malevich's Black Square still the play of brushstrokes figuratively animates the surface, and the square itself floats on a white ground. Klein jettisons even the emotive potential of brushwork in his use of rollers and sprayers for the application of colour. In his desire to construct pure, impersonal fields of colour he interrogates the relation of pigment to medium, substituting experimental resins and polymers for dulling oil. Yet the field of performative rhetoric he produced to advance and support his work was anything but impersonal. In the monochrome, as in the minimalist sculpture, material and form pose a Cartesian koan. It's a small step from Klein's banishment of expressive technique from his colour fields to Kapoor's heaps of pure pigment on the gallery floor. Slade needles this familiar solipsism without jettisoning the monochrome's dignity and reserve. Her digitalized monochromes suggest that the riddle -- the tensile relation of material to form, colour to line, pigment to medium, figure to field -- finds its nemesis in the techniques of textile production. The surface is programmed by software, stitched out in a ladylike pastiche of impersonality. Its gesture is machined; it apes an aura. Yet this is not a simulacrum -- it is thread itself, saturate, structural, yielding, narrating and binding.
Or, in the case of the pompom, drooping with goofy impotence. The pornography of the minimum resides here also: this orange blob seems to be the preparatory maquette for a quaintly obscene cartoon character or an innovatively erotic furnishing of the future. Absolutely it is pompous in both scale and stance -- its yarn has absorbed with the brash orange dye a maximum of attitude. Are we to recall that Klein's first exhibited monochrome was cadmium orange, or the garish toques of adolescence, or the almost-forgotten go-balls jiggling in the '74 Valiant? Potential referentiality extends as multivalently as the yarn. Its inconclusive limpness is sexy since it invites a gesture, but which -- the gesture of fluffing, of plumping, of reclining, of stroking -- in the instant of phenomenological confusion resides the semiotic perversion of Kathy Slade. To conceive her progress from here is distinctly uneasy. Such uneasiness crucially audits the instability of representation.
1. Jean Jacques Rousseau. Emile, or On Education. Tr. Allan Bloom (Basic Books, New York, 1979) p. 369.
2. From the narrative of Klein's 1954 film "La Guerre de la Ligne et de la Couleur, on vers la Proposition Monochrome", quoted in Yves Klein, Sidra Stich (Stuttgart: Kantz verlag, 1994), p. 50.
3. See Sadie Plant, Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + the New Technoculture (London: Fourth Estate, 1997), for an account of the relation of early computer code to new textile technology in the 19th century. Plant poses textile metaphor as meta-technique for feminist critical technologies. Slade has also machine embroidered drawings after Courbet's Origin of the World (exhibited in Summer 2002 at the Or Gallery, Vancouver, in the group show "The Village").
4. Laurence Sterne placed two 2 7/8" x 4 1/2" solid black ink rectangles at the end of Chapter 12, which narrates Yorick's death and commemoration, in the 1767 novel. In subsequent editions the black pages are often reduced in scale. Some of Slade's early embroidered monochrome work reduplicates the two black pages from the first edition.
5. See Fineman's essay "The Structure of Allegorical Desire", in The Subjectivity Effect in Western Literary Tradition (MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 1991) pp. 3-31.
6. See Roszika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (Routledge, London, 1989), and Mrs. Bury Palliser, History of Lace (1911, repr. Dover Books, New York, 1984).