There has long been a debate about the relative importance of fine art and craft, one that boils down to use: if it functions, it’s craft. If it doesn’t, it’s art.
That’s simplistic of course, and in these postmodern days those sorts of modernist ideals don’t have the currency they once did. The ’60s and ’70s resurgence of work by women artists in exhibitions and museum collections also served to open up the debate as so many women chose to use as their media disciplines that were traditionally associated with the domestic sphere. These days the difference between craft and art seems less important, though it is by no means decided. Craft still follows function, while art chases concepts.
Whole swathes of activity that had been relegated to the domestic sphere were, through the ’70s and ’80s, appropriated by women (and eventually men) to make art, eventually winning a role for these disciplines in the art museum. Textiles, in particular, reasserted their formerly central role in the art world, with embroidery, rug-hooking, knitting, and weaving all being used in contemporary art, rather than fine craft, approaches to making.
For much of Western art history, of course, these debates were never raised. For hundreds of years in Europe the works that were considered great weren’t the familiar paintings and sculpture of our museums, but textile works (tapestries in particular, often designed by women) were made by large workshops employing both men and women.
Paintings and sculptures were fine to decorate churches and to portray one’s ancestors, but if you lived in a castle the art form that you coveted were tapestries: woollen pictures that enlivened your dark halls, dampened echoes against cold stone walls, and, perhaps most important of all, cut down on the ever present drafts in those days before central heating and insulation. Tapestries (like another art form that was once considered more important than painting or sculpture, goldsmithing) were both thought-provoking and useful.
Jane Kidd, who now makes her home on Salt Spring Island, had her first solo exhibition of tapestry work in 1975, and she taught at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary until her retirement in 2011.
In Curious at the MSVU Art Gallery, we are presented with works from four related series, her last 15 years of production: Curiosities, Wonderland, Land Sentence, and Possession. Each series addresses a specific theme, though all of them share a fascination with new scientific techniques, in genetic manipulation for instance, or in satellite mapping, that are translated into textiles through Kidd’s weavings.
Curiosities harks back to the historical notion of a “cabinet of curiosities,” collections of odd objects that were displayed together as much for aesthetic as any pseudo-scientific reasons.
In her panels, the disparate objects (tools and flowers, shells and bones, etc.) have morphed into new, though impossible, combinations. Wonderland is presented in the forms of scrolls, displayed on shelves on the gallery wall. Conflating the fantasy of Lewis Carrol’s Wonderland with images of genetically altered seeds, plants, diagrams, and formulae taken from Monsanto’s promotional and scientific literature, Wonderland sparks us to ask what sort of world we are creating for ourselves?
Land Sentence features multi-panel tapestries derived from aerial and satellite photographs. As the artist says in her statement, they “provide beautiful yet unnerving images of pollution, erosion, deforestation and infestation; technology that records our complex and destructive relationship to the world around us.”
The final series, and the oldest work on view, is Possession. These works look at our impulse to collect and question the motives of that impulse. The question Kidd asks us to ask is, “Are we really learning anything about nature and other cultures by accumulating these traces?” The questions prompted by Kidd’s thoughtful work are well worth asking.
Curious also includes a video interview with Kidd, created at the time of her winning the Saidye Bronfman award in 2016, which provides a fascinating look at her process. Jane Kidd: Curious is on view at the MSVU Art Gallery until August 26.