The Pleasure of Cloth


A piece of cloth is thrown into the air. Its contours convulse as it falls. Folds agitate its surface. It billows out, arches over and collapses slowly like a long exhalation of breath. The cloth is green chiffon and its undulating movement has its own grace, but as it is caught in the lens of the passport shot in Liz Rideal’s work, it also functions as a kind of disturbance to the screen of vision. An uneasiness not only accompanies the graceful movement but is instilled within it, even as it is frozen and cut by the ordered arrangement of the grid (see Breathless). The movement of the cloth has a randomness which counters the serial ordering of the grid. Pieced togethere and re-photographed, the photographic miniature is magnified to show off the extravagant irregularity of its detail. The spasmodic, automatist gesture of the chiffon are caught in the mugshot of the passport photograph. The arrest of the movement detaches the images from the continuity of time, as if collage were pieced together not only from different fragments but from direct segment or bits of arrested time. Fabric in movement may be flowing, but its fluidity is always arrested and cut; so too, a continuous sense of time is interrupted, the breath halting and uneven.


The face that we would expect to find in a photobooth portrait has slipped out oof the picture and the camera flash captures instead the normally incidental details of a backdrop. Except here those details take on an elusive even expressive life of their own. The more elaborate twists and contortions invoke ‘drapery’ rather than just cloth; that is, one of those overlooked aspects of painting to which an odd sort of anxiety had often been attached. To enlarge the marginal details of a picture is to draw attention to what I excessive in ornament or detail. It is to foreground superfluous incident which might threaten the coherence of the image. In modernism, ornament has been pathologised, criminalised, and otherwise deemed a danger to hygiene and health. At the beginning of the century, the architect Adolf Loos accused ornament of the crime of turning back the clock of cultural development. The taste for the decorative in clothing and furniture was pathologised as feminine, as embellishment, as style, as excessive. To make the draped folds of diaphanous cloth the significant incident within the frame of the image is to make manifest that which had been constantly repressed within modernism in favour of a pared-down simplicity of geometric form. Cloth caught in movement acts like a performative gesture in danger of subverting the very frame that it (only just) inhabits. It seems to oscillate in and out of the picture it is supposedly caught within. Sometimes the still evident creases of folded silk reiterate the grid in haphazard, rough approximations (see Green swathe). The checkerboard of the lines of the grid is a fragile container of such precarious material.


In painting, drapery may mould the body’s outlines, follow its curves, define its mass, in every way give form to the body. But it may also have the reverse effect. Piles of wanton cloth, a generous train of satin or even the tablecloth of a still-life may be painted as if these undulating folds have no internal structure – and without internal structure, they register only a state of collapse. It is as if cloth were so compelling precisely because of the way it has conventionally lurched between these poles, A texture would seem to bind a surface but may just as easily mark an unravelling. Detached from the body, the diaphanous fold may undo the very terms upon which normal kinds of pictorial structure depend. This is the appeal of precarious material that may only just be held in place. Just as drapery covers and conceals the body, so it serves to reveal it, to echo its crevices, to draw attention to its erotic points. It excels as a fetish object, displacing erotic focus onto the textures and touch of a fabric, or onto undulations and folds of something which is not flesh but which may stand as a substitute for it. The French psychiatrist G.G. de Clèrambault had made drapery the favoured fetish, both as an object of clinical scrutiny as well as his own obsessive object of fantasy. During the First World War, de Clèrambault took 40,000 photographs of Morrocan subjects shrouded in cloth, chronicling every folded nuance of the sweeping or stiffened drapes. In these photographs, a colonial subject is rendered a fantasmatic screen for fetishistic fantasy, desire displace onto the drapery which veils the body (rather than the body itself). Later, de Clèrambault lectured on drapery, carefully replicating the details of such elaborate folds and twists on wax dolls or live models to demonstrate his points. Such investment in the psychic resonances of the decorative patterns of cloth is at the very least the pathological double to Loos’s pristine vision of a modernist purity.


The pleasures of cloth which animate the work of Liz Rideal touch on the language of fetishism. Her veils of chiffon are displace form the body, a point emphasised by the presence in some of the frames of a remaindered, detached hand, and yet demand and almost fixated attention. Yet to take that material of cloth and gesture and transform it into something like a mobile language of desire also speak of a realm of femininity which the language of fetishism can hardly contain. Arching back, spasmodically jerking, the contortions are closer to the convulsive movements of the hysteric. In Liz Rideal’s images, cloth seems to occupy a place mid-way between the fetish as displaced object of desire and making of the material a language of (her) desire. In an earlier series called the Rainbow portraits, Rideal used herself as model, but only in order to conceal or veil herself in the movement of hair which blocks the face from view. Again, hair functions as kind of automatism gesturing against the vivid, almost acid, yellow of the ground. Like silks or chiffons, hair is the classic fetish material, the conventional site of allure and displaced object of desire; but here it is as if such classic sites of fetishism are turned against themselves and deployed to different ends to evoke both the pleasure and compulsions of a feminine subject.


Drapery is just cloth, but cloth which has been arranged in folds for the purposes of painting and sculpture. Its vagaries are usually harnessed by the rules of composition, but it may also twist and contort to make the surface of a picture almost buckle under the pressure of its rogue, if weightless arabesques. It is just material but it may also suggest the transient, the insubstantial or immaterial. Within modernism the stuff of actual fabric has tended to foreground the materiality of collage. The surrealist poet Louis Aragon talked about defying the luxury of painting through the poverty of collage. He described the mythic moment when Picasso took a dirty linen shirt and fixed it onto a piece of canvas. But there is also an elusive aspect to the netting and gauzes that Picasso used in his collages of the 1920s, a kind of insubstantial ghostly dimension that co-exists with their material presence. Even at the moment of high modernism’s decline in the early 1960s, the twin poles of materiality and immateriality continued to exert an extraordinary force. In his veil paintings, Morris Louis embedded colour in the unprimed canvas by using a staining technique, attaining an effect of immateriality through the very materials of painting itself. On the other hand, an artist like Oldenburg drew attention to the palpable effects of cloth and surface in his soft sculpture. Oldenburg used cloth coated with tempera, enamel and finally vinyl to invoke the tacky, brightly coloured surfaces of modernity in what the critic Max Kozloff, echoing Aragon, called an ‘aesthetics of poverty and street detritus’. But of all the artists working with soft materials it was Eva Hesse who trod the most precarious path between the materiality of process and the immaterial and even ghostly qualities of temporal dislocation. Contingent, for example, consisted of eight units of rubberised cheesecloth hung away from the wall and occupied a position mid-way between painting and sculpture, neither really one nor the other.


It is this repetitive gesture within a repetitive structure taken to a point of absurdity, which continues to animate art at the end of the nineties. Liz Rideal’s work is made of photographic elements and informed by a principle of collage yet it is perhaps closest to painting. Firstly, it clearly invokes the modernist grid as the paradigmatic structure of repetition articulating an all-over pictorial surface. And secondly, it invokes the pre- modern in the fugitive and frozen folds of a kind of drapery that is archaic, part of dream past, of the slightly crinkled surface of curtain which looks like a back-drop without a figure to front it. 


The Repetitive movement of cloth perform almost like brushstrokes in much of Rideal’s work to created a gestural surface, and the photographic images are deployed as if they were a medium with their own possibilities as paint might be. The peculiar sharpness of some of the colour is reminiscent of the dream past of extravagant ornament and decorative detail (Blue Fall 1 & 2). The chiffon might be gauzy and diaphanous but it is also shot seen against a pungent red. Pale yellow net may have and insubstantial quality but it is a yellow which appears shot through with pink. This recalls what was traditionally called changeant colour which Cennini reckoned was particularly appropriate on draper and angels, or even, at times, the sharper pitch of Mannerist colour with its often abrupt and acidic tonal shifts. Shot colour often resided in the details of garments in the margins of pictures; here, the colour exacerbates the pitch of the pictorial surface, cranks it to a slightly nervous intensity that makes the grace of its gestural movement tip over to trigger some kind of disturbance at the level of the surface and its effects. 


A cloth like chiffon or silk may be seductive in the way it tilts or arcs across a surface; its convoluted contours and sheen of shot colour may have a graceful allure; but it is also the site of a compulsive performance of gesturing. The fugitive gestures and intricate patterns of the folds of cloth are repeatedly caught in the lens of the serial photograph. The photobooth images comes already replicated and in multiple copies; re-photographed and enlarged, the image is subjected to a further replication of the original miniature. The deliberately disparate means used by Liz Rideal all seem to converge on the fundamental structure of repetition. She has taken the familiar and made it strange, whether it be the format of a passport photo or the acres of drapery in painting that might be seen but not looked at closely. So a fold in a piece of cloth may come to look like something never seen before, and interior landscape with intimate recesses, perhaps even folds of tissue inside the body, or some other unexpected and uncharted territory.


Briony Fer, 1998