Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon
Vol. 24, Issue 23
April 8, 1998
Archer Gallery, Clark College Vancouver, WA
The Fabrication of History

Artist Gail Grinnell comments on women's history in an installation of block-printed and painted fabric panels.

Fabrication, Gail Grinnell's site-specific installation at the Archer Gallery, consists of 60 panels composed of cut and stitched silk organza fabnc. They vary in width from about 4 inches to 60 inches and hang by clothespins from seven clothes lines suspended parallel to one another about 8 feet above the floor. The fabric is woodblock-printed and painted with images culled primarily from the antique art of heraldry, which Grinnell describes as "a set of symbolic devices developed as distinguishing marks in war that evolved into symbols for hereditary differences that determine social class and status." Because the panels are assemblages of fragments of transparent fabrics, all of them are visible from any given point in the gallery, giving the installation an ethereal quality. But the best way to view the panels is to walk among them, an expedience reminiscent of navigating clotheslines hung with drying laundry during a time prior to the widespread use of electric dryers. Hanging laundry to dry was one of the many household chores that housewives repeated time and time again. But the circumstances no doubt varied: At times the women were hurried, at other times meditative, and at other times they were swapping stories with neighbors engaged in the same task. In this sense, the chore exemplified women's general existence.

This connection to women's work and history is instrumental to the understanding of Grinnell's art. The Seattle artist can be thought of as carrying the torch of the 60s feminist movement, exploring what makes women's experience different from that of men. An alternate reading is that Grinnell is using sewing patterns and decorative motifs in reference to the importance of domesticity as it relates to home life and, one step further, introspection. Whatever the interpretation, Grinnell isn't the first to use decoration in an attempt to understand women's roles. Miriam Schapiro has been quilting and collaging decorative objects since she and Judy Chicago founded the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia in the 1970s. Seattle artist Deborah Mersky began layering decorative patterns over each other and over figurative and other representational images in the mid-1980s (Mersky's work can be seen at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery, 522 NW 12th Ave.) And Portland artist Whitney Nye has used sewing patterns in her sculpture, which addresses family and inheritance.

Even longer ago, the importance of domestic life formed the philosophical basis of the arts and crafts movement at the turn of the 20th century. Those who championed it considered beauty and creativity to be vital to domestic environments, traditionally the domain of women, where everyday life takes place. This was a response to the Industrial Revolution, to the growth of the cities and factories, and to the resulting negligence of the pursuit or truth through beauty and individual creativity. Is it a coincidence that at the end of this century we are experiencing a similar neglect caused by a technological rather than an industrial revolution? Is artwork such as Grinnell's, which acknowledges the decorative and its connection to home life, a response to this alienation? William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Cratts Movement in England, was interested in resurrecting the lifestyle of medieval homes, which he felt was purer and more rooted in nature than that of the 19th century. He studied medieval church art and decoration. Likewise, Grinnell is using heraldic imagery which dates to the tie of knights and chivalry. Morris also designed textiles and wallpaper, and Grinnell's series of panels incorporate characteristics of both of these. In another nod to history, Grinnell hangs one of her mother's embroideries from the 1930s on the gallery wall.

This interest in home life is not exclusive to the visual arts. It's a theme in Frank McCourt's tremendously popular memoir, Angela's Ashes, and it's at the core—for better or worse—of the "family values" political soundbite. After many years of women fighting to make strides in the workplace, the pendulum is swinging back to a focus on home and on nurturing the personal. The campaign for equality ' should not cease, of course, and one hopes it will translate to more balance at work and at home for both o the sexes.

In the first few sentences of her artist's statement, Grinnell writes, "The inspirations for much of this work are the decorative household arts—embroidery, crochet, sewing etc....these arts represent repressed creativity as the distaff of the dominant culture...[and] are a visual link to the source of my own personal creativity." Grinnell's words reflect her intention to use personal experience and knowledge as a primary source for her visual comment on a broader sociocultural situation. This is the baseline for much good art, and Grinnell is on the right track: She is in the company of accomplished artists who have used similar materials and subject matter.

— Kate Bonansinga