In the art-market documentary The Price of Everything (2018), Amy Cappellazzo of Sotheby’s suggests positioning works in a corporate atrium as a one-way route to career death. As the auctioneer sees it, once you wind up in the lobby, there’s no getting out. It seems an irresistibly knowing gesture, then, to mount an ambitious show of textile works – a medium, in a less appreciative era, synonymous with lobby art – within the entrance hall and stairwell of a 1960s corporate block.
In ‘Soft? Tactile Dialogues’, the work of younger Belgian-based artists engaging with fibre – among them the Nel Aerts, Kati Heck and Klaas Rommelaere – are shown alongside allied works from the 1970s. It was a vogueish era for the medium. From 1962, International Tapestry Biennials were held in Lausanne and in 1969 the exhibition ‘Wall Hangings’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art included works by Sheila Hicks and Lenore Tawney alongside 27 other artists from the Americas and Europe.
This exhibition re-introduces the work of the (largely female) Textielgroep active in Belgium during that era. With the exception of two pieces by Tapta (born Maria Wierusz-Kowalski), all are drawn from the archive of Antwerp’s ModeMuseum, where they have lurked un-shown since shortly after acquisition. (Such are the vagaries of fashion, in art as in costume.)
It seems implausible that any institution could overlook Veerle Dupont’s Alruin (Mandrake, 1976). Besides this wall hanging’s considerable heft and the rooty tendrils that cascade its length like tentacles of the Kraken, the work has an insistent aroma. Among the many materials woven into Alruin’s tufty tan-vegetal surface, Dupont worked with tarred ropes from Antwerp’s port, which exude a distinctive dockyard tang. Close proximity to Alruin recalls the tarry embrace of a particularly hirsute sailor.
In 1980, Tapta moved away from fibre to create black sculptural works in industrial materials. Abandoning colour must have been a wrench. The subtle, nature-derived tones both of the yarn-wrapped cylinders of Horizon Flexibles (1976) and suspended twisting panels of Structure Torsadée (Twisted Structure, 1973) are prime examples of the tactile and textural depth that fibre can bring. Both works are exciting explorations of form and colour.
Not all the Textielgroep pursued fibrous routes. Hetty Van Boekhout’s padded, embroidered relief The Ratrace (1973), stitched from upholstery textiles, portrays a huddle of fat-cats, caricatured in an illustrational style recalling political children’s fables of the era. Edith Van Driessche’s Use No Hooks (1980-85) is collaged from stained and abraded strips of packaging fabric, the titular phrase repeated like a stuttering refrain down its centre.
It would be misleading to suggest the Textielgroep were influential antecedents to the younger artists shown suspended, crazily if convincingly, within the eight-storey stairwell. Rommelaere’s epic multi-panel knitted and embroidered Future (2018) uses the visual language of fanzines and folk art in a splintered documentation of the early stages of a relationship, unfolding against a backdrop of empty Jupiler beer cans. It’s an extraordinary piece, but it occupies a different universe from the hand-dyed yarn works of Tapta and Dupont. Kati Heck is more familiar from her meticulous and disarming psychedelic paintings – here one appears half-stretched, slack and flag-like. On the storey above, the artist has positioned a vast upholstered doll with a tumbled head against a magenta curtain: more drama, and as ever with Heck, the suggestion of oddness interrupted.
It is only Sven ‘t Jolle’s Yves Saint-Lazare (2014) – a masklike robe pieced from rags used to moisten clay – that strikes an abject note of a piece with Van Driessche. This is not a criticism, more an acknowledgement of how art-historically concealed the Textielgroep’s work has been. Many of the artists involved are still alive, and it’s striking how much contextual text here comes from new interview material. If published records do exist of the group’s activities, they’re still warmly nestled in paper archives, yet to bother the world online.
‘Soft? Tactile Dialogues’, ModeMuseum and Maurice Verbaet Center, Antwerp, Belgium runs until 24 February 2019.
Main image: Nel Aerts, Ontmaskerd Maske, edition of 20, 2017. Courtesy: © We Document Art