Goose Rock Panorama, 2007, Cotton and watercolor, in progress

I’ve been thinking about the planes on which we work, that is, the stretched canvas, the photograph, and the quilted textile. This is partly in response to my interest in analyzing quilted textiles vis-a-vis more traditional media, say, oil paintings. But my thinking has also been triggered by some reading I’m doing; I’ll reference the readings at the end of this post.

With stretched canvas, some questions revolve around how the picture plane is used (as a window, as a flat surface, or extended out into frontal space and rounded so there’s a back side to the image.) Abstract expressionism flattens space (harking back to some older pictorial practices), and that may be why the Ab Exs worked very large — while they don’t impinge on the viewer’s frontal space, they fill her vision completely, surrounding the viewer physically. Caravaggio is Frank Stella’s example of an oil painter who visually breaks the frontal flat plane, and Stella works at that process by physically manipulating the geometrics of the rectangular painter’s space. Other artists follow the ab exs but cut off the edges of the image, indicating that there’s more beyond the frame. (I’m thinking of Philip Pearlstein’s nudes, but there are innumerable other examples). And then there’s Robert Irwin, who ultimately rejected the notion of the frame, but even while he was working on stretched canvas, he played games with it. (At one point the dimensions of his canvas was 82.5 x 84.5 inches, appearing but not being square, with a slight ballooning at the center.)

So even before the question of how the planar rectangle is used comes the question of the size and shape of that initial working space. Once a decision on size is made, painters are limited by their choice (unless you follow Cezanne, who had a problem with a foot in his Pierrot and Harlequin and undid the canvas from the stretcher to add a bit to the bottom).
But photographers have a bit more flex. They can crop photos, thus changing the “canvas” size, and they can do so after they’ve got an image started. They don’t have to decide ahead of time what proportions their canvas will be; in addition, they can make very large or very small prints of the same image. The physical limitations for photographs are less stringent than for the stretched canvas artist.

The quilted textile artist has even greater flexibility than photographers in his use of the picture plane and the pictorial space he has available. For example, the space can be expanded. In works using patterns and blocks, extra sets can be added to any edge to expand the whole. When I do traditional quilts I use this process when I find my central motif is too massive for its chosen borders or when more fabric is needed to fit the bed I am working to cover.

But even without sets and blocks or the necessity to make the piece fit a prescribed setting, I find that expansion is sometimes useful. It allows me to use the whole of a serendipitous fabric, for example, while cooling and calming it a bit. Here’s an example:


Miocene, dyed silk, in progress (1), 2006
This is an initial bit of dyed silk charmeuse. Charmeuse takes the dye brilliantly and thus often has to be tamed.


Miocene, in progress (2)

I began one evening by slicing the silk along its mirror-image lines. I didn’t know where I was going with the cut when I did it.


Miocene, in progress (3)

I lined the open space with a painted polyester fabric called “lutradur” and then added other elements. At this point, I had begun to comprehend what it was I had on my hands.


Miocene, finished, 2006

This is the finished piece. More was added to the bottom sides, and the piece was over-painted as well as over-laid with some collaged bits.

With wall textiles, it is also possible to cut down rather than enlarge the original, or even to make more than one item out of what begins as a single piece. I often begin work by dyeing mirror images. In the next series, you can see a finished piece from one side of a mirror image work plus the other unworked side along with a couple of its consequent outcomes. (Ultimately there were four pieces completed from the second side.)


The Indeterminate Nature of Exhilaration, dyed silk, finished 2005


The Indeterminate Nature of Exhilaration mirror-image silk in progress

The Indeterminate Nature of Exhilaration 3 (AKA Dawn) 2005


The Indeterminate Nature of Exhilaration 4 (AKA Storm) 2005

Of course, most monkeying with the picture plane on quilted textiles is not so extreme. On a smaller scale, edges, for example, can be straightened and cropped after the piece is stitched. This is done most frequently because of the stretching and slipping that happens during the dyeing, painting, and stitching processes, but it’s also very useful when some edge or other has a problem. Here’s a photo of a charmeuse pinned to a 5 x 5′ stretched canvas, just after the image has been painted with watercolor and soy milk medium. The work-in-progress is followed by its final stitched, squared-up, and cropped and bound incarnation.


The Mother of Us All, painted silk, work in progress, 2007

The Mother of US All, completed, 2007


The Mother of Us All, detail, silk 2007

[The photographs of Mother are my own and thus don’t show the stitching as vividly as the pro photographer’s photos of Indeterminate do.]
Some books that cover interesting aspects of this question (although not from the textile point of view) are Frank Stella’s 1986 Working Space and Erle Loran’s 1964 Cezanne’s Compositions. Another book that we’ve spoken of that’s rich with information about the canvas plane and its limitations is Lawrence Weschler’s book on Robert Irwin: Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. I suspect that James Elkins has a book somewhere in his repertoire that addresses the question — he seems to touch on just about every other more-or-less art related topic. It is Elkins, in his Why Art Cannot Be Taught, who says that during art school critiques the question of the use of the picture plane’s space is one of the most frequently addressed topics.

So, what kind of elements go into your thinking about the canvas you will or won’t use? How do you decide on the size, shape, materials? And when you photograph, what goes into your decisions to crop or not and how big the final image will be? Steve crops for abstraction, I believe, and I know some photography gets greatly enlarged, wall-covering, viewer-surrounding. How do the limitations of your materials work for you?