Substrate, Structure, Surface

Substrate, Structure, Surface - Leonie Andrews

 25 June - 31 July 2010



It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves.  There is none such.  It is the bog of our brain and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream’

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, New York 1965

Like Thoreau, Leonie Andrews has come to understand the inseparability of self and place, the connectedness that binds her existence with that of the landscape around her. In Substrate, Structure, Surface, her first solo exhibition, Andrews allows us to witness her relationship with two environments that are very dear to her – that of her suburban Canberra abode, and the coastal retreat of Depot Beach.

Since her arrival in Canberra in the mid 70’s, Andrews has witnessed the steady encroachment of urban life on a rural habitat. Over the decades she has noticed the changes occurring in her neighbourhood. She has been walking, treading lightly, and quietly listening; open and receptive to the information offered by her environment.

The tactile language she uses to tell her story is one familiar to all of us; and yet it is so familiar that it is often undervalued as an artistic medium. In this exhibition Andrews has pieced together fragmented remnants of worn and discarded clothing that are imbued with a sense of history, witnesses to a past life. The back of a friend’s skirt here, the leg of a trouser there; the makeshift combination of disparate pieces to form a new whole - discards that have been rescued to tell new stories, not about the landscape but of the landscape.   The idea to use only recycled textiles came from a workshop challenge set by prominent Australian textile artist Nalda Searles in 2001, to produce art for a year without buying any art materials. Andrews has taken this challenge onboard and has continued to learn and expand her knowledge of dyes and fabrics through the process.

Surrounded by a family whose women worked in textiles, and whose men were engineers, Andrews eventually took up quilting in the early 90’s and, through Textile Fibre Forum workshops and later as a student in the Textile Workshop at Australian National University School of Art, explored many new techniques to create contemporary quilts. She chose tutors that embraced similar intellect and sensibilities to the Australian landscape as herself, such as Ruth Hadlow and Nalda Searles, who encouraged students to find their own voice that reflected their personal relationship with the land, and to express this through textiles.

In the past decade there has been renewed interest in natural dyeing, in particular using native Australian plants.  The substantive nature of many of our plant species enables colours to be obtained without the use of harsh or toxic mordants. The other advantage is that, unlike our northern hemisphere counterparts, our trees are not deciduous, allowing dyeing and experimentation to occur throughout the year. The colours achieved by natural dyeing can vary greatly from season to season, creating a union between intent and accident. Environmental conditions also impact on the colour produced, so that the resulting textiles bear witness to weather and soil conditions, as well as water quality.

Andrews has used plants only within the two locations of interest to her over several seasons. Her earthy yet subdued colour palette is enhanced by her choice of substrate – the natural fibres of silk, cotton and linen – highlighting incidental marks and stains from their previous life. These worn and faded textiles act as a metaphor for the Australian bush - fragile yet resolute. Yet Andrews is not deterred by the encroachment of urbanisation into her environment, but embraces it by collecting its detritus – cans and bottle tops, rusty metal staples - for use in her textiles. Some of these are added into the dyebaths to act as mordants, subtly changing tone and hue. Others are used as stamps or stencils to overprint the cloth with a mordant mixture, a process practiced hundreds of years ago in India. The printed mordants react with the varied fibre compositions to produce subtle, almost transparent layering effects on many of the pieces, in particular Squaretown and Cross and Circle, where the variegated background adds another dimension to the stamped print.

Traditional quilting uses the system of the grid - a visual methodology of controlling the images within it - and can be seen as a metaphor for human control over nature. It is a quest for order, repetition and symmetry – edges are straightened, tamed and bound; stitches are measured, precise, regulated. Although Andrews initially mastered this technique she has deliberately eschewed the tradition in order to express herself in a more fluid way. She has avoided the compulsion to square the edges, trim the threads and hem the work. Their asymmetry and varying dimensions divorce them from a utilitarian purpose, unlike the quilt or wagga.

Looking at the work in this raw state assures the viewer that these textiles could be better understood through touch. The rhythmic stitching and its placement allow us to imagine it is we who are pushing the needle through the layers of cloth; we imagine we can feel what we can see. The tactility of these fabrics exudes physical presence – warmth, touch, and human connection. We get a real sense that Andrews is marking time, through the unpicking of existing garments, the cutting and re-ordering of seams, and the irregular stitching highlighting the surfaces.  The unconventional shapes of these works, their eccentric angles and folds, respond to gravity and tension so that we are fully aware we are viewing something three, rather than two-dimensional.

As an emerging artist, it is often hard to extend beyond the teachings and influences of your mentors, to find your own expression within an ancient artform.  In Substrate, Substance, Surface Andrews is starting to coax the medium to speak for her - not a loud protest against the destruction of the environment but a quiet celebration of all it has to offer.

Julie Ryder

Textile artist and educator