The natural properties of fabric offer artists a nuanced means of expressing identity. The qualities inherent in material mimic those of skin: fabric can be soft and yielding, it can be sensuous, even odorous. It hangs, drags and swells organically: it is physical, yet delicate and undeniably corporeal.
Fiber Art, or the use of fabric in fine art, dates back many centuries and principally covers periods of representational tapestry. More recently, fabric has begun to be used purely for its material qualities. As in much of art, there has been a shift in the balance between form and content, with form gradually beginning to dominate. Artists have recognised the capacity of fabric as an expressive medium and as an imitation of the human body. Robert Rauschenberg‘s pioneering work Bed (1955) consists of the covers and pillow of a bed, daubed in paint and hung on a wall in the mode of a painting. The Museum of Modern Art in New York where the work is displayed, suggests that it acts like a self-portrait: the ruffled blankets and the impression upon the pillow are suggestive of a presence. The inherent absence is paradoxically implicative of this, like a footprint. He is not there and so we are made acutely aware that he once was, that this is where he should be. Some forty years later Tracey Emin‘s My Bed (1998) similarly used bedding to examine her identity. Her unmade bed strewn with personal affects functioned like a naked self-portrait: her life is laid out prostrate before the viewer, the scattered fragments of her existence merging like patchwork into an identity. Emin shows the self as composite, as the sum of many parts. As with Rauschenberg’s Bed, the dirty sheets are poignant reminders of a missing presence and are therefore constructive of a suggested self. The fabric is intimate, it has lain against her skin as she slept, it has been the first thing she touched each morning, her first point of contact with the outside world. So Emin identifies the importance of fabric, its inherent intimacy and its sexuality.
The intimate qualities and associations of fabric are pivotal in the work of the artist Isabel Yellin. In her works Skin and Bone 4 and Skin and Bone 5, Yellin experiments with the corporeality of fabric. The titles of the works alone are evocative of Yellin’s association between flesh and fabric, and accordingly the works replicate the structure of an organism. PVC leatherette is stretched across corset boning like skin over human bone, a thin framework that gives the sculpture its form. In places where the fabric touches the internal structure it becomes taught and at other points it is slack, like skin stretched across a joint as it contracts and relaxes. The material itself is overtly synthetic, it’s very manmade nature revealing the presence of human involvement. The surface appears thick and suffocating and the sheen of it faintly suggests a living, sweating surface. Yellin thus builds a body, explaining that she is ‘trying to deal with the physicality of fabric and this idea of it as our second skin’.
Yellin describes her work as intimately connected to her sense of identity and indicates that memories of her mother inspire her work, saying that the ‘tactile connection I feel with fabrics that remind me of my childhood with her are unavoidable.’ Yellin employs fabric as a vital component, a mediator between her experiences and her self, and an extension of her identity. Her experimentations recall the ways in which children begin to learn about the world around them through their senses. Fabric is a universal constant in contemporary existence, it is one of the first sensations a baby will experience. ‘Texture and material are a constant, whether as our clothing, the floor below us, our bedding, the fabric on our sofa, and that context creates this backdrop to our existence,’ she explains. Yellin’s work explores how we cling to material as a grip upon our existence. As Emin uses her material surroundings to construct her composite identity, Skin and Bone 4 and Skin and Bone 5 express our primordial connection to fabric and the artist’s sense of self.
Yellin’s work can also be considered through its relationship to the Fiber Art movement in the 1970s and 80s when feminist artists began to reclaim art made from fabric, principally needlework and embroidery. Fabric had long been associated with women and with the idea of the ‘feminine’. However, in 1984 feminist art historian Rozsike Parker published ‘The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine‘ which deconstructed notions of gendered Fiber Art and exposed the ideas of the ‘feminine’ and the ‘natural’ as social constructs. Likewise the movement pioneered the destruction of previously existing boundaries between art and textiles and by extension between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. In her essay ‘Kinda art, sorta tapestry: tapestry as shorthand access to the definitions, languages, institutions, attitudes, hierarchies, ideologies, constructions, classifications, histories, prejudices and other bad habits of the West’, the art historian Anne Newdigate raises the importance of interrogating preconceived hierarchies. She sets herself the questions ‘Who constructed the definition?’, ‘Who needs the oppositional distinctions and is going to benefit from them?’ and ‘Why should I comply with these codes and conventions?’. Newdigate proposes that, once these questions are asked and the historic classifications accordingly deconstructed it does not matter whether the work she creates is ‘kinda art or sorta textile’. Both Rauschenberg and Emin sought to challenge notions of the sacred art object with their work, with Rauschenberg’s act of mounting a bed on a wall and placing canvases on the floor a clear rebellion against the art establishment and Emin’s confessional, deeply personal works defying the polite restraint of much of art history. Likewise Yellin is intrigued by the role of the ordained artist, who is able to transform a commonplace material by calling it art and placing it in a gallery. Her choice of what she herself describes as ‘tacky’ PVC ‘sex sheets’ bought online from fetish websites questions the art world’s interchangeable contempt and acceptance of certain materials depending on their context.
Whilst it is important not to unquestioningly refer to Fiber Art as ‘feminine’ due to its associations with domesticity, material is undeniably bound up with notions of sexuality. This difference certainly holds true in Yellin’s work: PVC leatherette could not be described to be a domestic, household material, and yet it has strong sexual associations. Drapery has been used to evoke and to suggest sexual desire throughout art history and Yellin appears to show an awareness of this in the smoothly drooping folds of Skin and Bone 4. Tracey Emin’s Everyone I have ever slept with 1963-1995 (1997), a tent stitched with the names of everyone with whom Emin had shared a bed, whether platonically or sexually, is significant in its use of fabric to express sexual identity. Similarly, Yellin employs materials that are sexually charged and suggestive of fetish to construct her forms, her ‘second skins’. In Skin and Bone 5 she attaches cuttings from other materials, a nude piece of chiffon recalls Yellin’s earlier works with pastel-coloured, softer materials and is gently suggestive of intimacy, of a softer sexuality to the one expressed by the PVC.
Fabric can be an important mediator between the artist and the surrounding world and a valuable tool for expressing identity. Material and textiles are deeply rooted in contemporary culture and human experience with the inherently tactile nature of fabric making it an important part of a child’s development. Using fabric’s natural qualities artists are able to form surrogate bodies, ‘second skins’ that can be warped and shaped like human matter. Infinitely expressive of sensuality and sexuality, fabric represents an instinctive connection to our identity and to our humanity.