White and Colorful Yarns

Maru López

Oct 12th,2021


Walking through the wide ample spaces at Bread and Salt, an art space near my home in San Diego, I stopped to contemplate a colorful textile work.[1] The work was not big in size, probably no more than 24 by 12 inches. It was composed of dense fluffy pom-poms framing a needlepoint scene of flowers and a house of more subdued shades that were made slightly more mellow by a beige corner where the textured pattern of the needlepoint fabric could be seen. The colors attracted me, and the textured three-dimensional quality of the pom-poms made me want to feel the yarns between my fingers. As I continued strolling through the space, I turned to the friend that accompanied me, and we commented on several other pieces that had caught our attention. My friend and I share a common love for textiles and craft. We often gravitate towards the more tactile pieces where we linger to look and reflect yet that day it was in several other works that we had an ongoing conversation that I have been ruminating on for weeks.

The works were mostly paintings where abstraction was used in a diversity of ways with the common element of a color palette of soft colors associated with the Southern California urban landscape. These works brought on a conversation amongst us where we reflected on our lack of enthusiasm for this type of work and what we appreciated about craft. Although the details of the conversation are lost with the distance of weeks a part of it stands out in my mind. My critique was specific. The paintings seemed decorative. In my assessment at that moment, I referred to them seeming to lack concept. Or at least not having the strength in their visual representation of transmitting it to me as a viewer. Yet the conversation left me wondering on what is deemed decorative. And what are my own notions of this? How are they part, or resist discourses taught to me through the years?

In her essay “The Decorative, Abstraction, and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of Clement Greenberg” Elissa Auther critically engages with some of Greenberg’s main ideas concerning the decorative. Greenberg presents “the decorative as a theory of aesthetic value that demonstrates its purifying function within a narrative of modern art that sought to link abstract painting to the ‘high’ Western tradition through the covert reproduction and maintenance of the hierarchy of art and craft”[2] For him the decorative was associated with forms he deemed superficial and ornamental as well as been associated with the ‘low’ forms of art seen in the applied arts and crafts. These types of functional expressions of art with their utilitarian qualities where to Greenberg “evidence of an artist’s lack of true artistic inspiration and conception and explained his or her failure to uphold the boundaries of art and mere things,” because to him ‘true art’ should be non-functional and standalone instead of being part of a wider whole. This conception of functionality was tightly attached as Auther states with associations of the feminine and domesticity.[3]

The pom-pom piece that attracted me at Bread and Salt was titled Home by artist Katie Ruiz. Its textile and tapestry elements as well as its association to domesticity tie it to many of Greenberg’s notions of the decorative.Referring to another textile practice Greenberg points to embroidery as being a superficial mode of ornament that derive “from the classification of needlecraft as a popular art form, one in fact that is practiced almost exclusively by women”[4] It is these qualities that attracted me to the work. The familiarity of the feminine quality of the work allowed me a different aesthetic experience than the abstract pieces which evoked my initial ruminations. The colors and texture engage my senses and spark connections that go beyond the piece to my own personal experiences. While contemplating Ruiz’s piece I think of the textile practices of the women in my family and how their work expands my conceptions of the decorative bringing into view an array of positive aspects and the strength of its associations to the feminine.

Just a week after my visit to Bread and Salt I flew to my country to amongst many things visit family. In the mountain town where my mother grew up in front of a wide central plaza lives my grandmother’s only surviving sibling. My great-aunt lives in an old grey house that has been in my family for generations. In 2017 a powerful hurricane caved the wooden roof and so many things were lost. Yet so many things were also saved. Entering the space with its new colors scheme and fresh upholster furniture one element remains the same. Pristine intricate crochet pieces made in thin white cotton yarn still cover the back of chairs, the dining table, the beds. The pieces were all made by my aunt who used to be a university professor and is now 105. She like my grandmother were avid crocheters, spending the hours in the late-night taking time to sit by themselves and let other responsibilities slide away. The piece made to decorate their homes would be considered by Greenberg as superficial ornamentation of the surfaces and most certainly be overlooked as a feminine past time that had little beyond technical skill and lacked meaning.

These hierarchies between art and craft have led to many years of works like Katie Ruiz’s pom-pom piece to be dismissed because of its associations to crafts such as the textile pieces created by my great aunt. Crafts considered feminine. This has changed somewhat in recent decades as fiber practices gain a wider visibility in the art realm but showing it in certain spaces can lead to a disconnection with the work of countless women that created pieces in their homes. These works with their at times tackiness and associations of functional decoration provided women with a space to be creative, a private space, and it provided many with objects that they couldn’t find elsewhere. For me these objects have the strength of evoking memories not only of my grandmother and great aunt with yarn between their hands but the spaces they created for themselves with their intricate decorative lace patterns.

[1] The exhibition on display at Bread and Salt was SD Practice which presented the works of several San Diego artists. It ran from July 10th to Sept 5th and was an effort launched by the San Diego Commission of Art and Culture. The works were on exhibit at Bread and Salt as well as in the San Diego Art Institute and the San Diego International Airport. All the pieces are now part of the Civic Art Collection and will be displayed on city run properties through San Diego County.

[2] Elisa Auther, “The Decorative, Abstraction, and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in the Art Criticism of Clement Greenberg”, Oxford Art Journal, Vol 27, No. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.  342

[3]  Ibid 341- 345

[4]  Ibid 350