Shapeshifting Abstraction

by Julia Kunin

(Published in Pliable Channels exhibition catalog, March 5 – April 3, 2016, Freight & Volume, NY, NY)

Meg Lipke’s sprawling abstract canvases are rolled, cut, sewn, fragmented and filled, becoming surreal objects that once functioned in a parallel world. Her compelling fabric constructions are made with a painter’s eye. They are minimal in form, yet exuberant in their vibrant color and ornamentation. At a time when fiber arts is being increasingly recognized as high art, Lipke is pushing the boundaries between abstract painting and textiles, merging the two.

Lipke’s work is deeply autobiographical without being confessional.  Her prolific output of paintings, drawings and sculptures reads like pages in a journal written with urgency and elegance. To enter her studio where this process takes place, is to interrupt an eccentric upholsterer’s shop or a surgery gone awry.  Although the results are covered with pattern and color, there remains a dark side to them, as they reference rescue and possible endangerment. Pillows and coverslips, arms and legs are mended, stuffed and re-combined.  A stained muslin life raft, (Her Raft, 2015) resembles two bloated torsos attached like Siamese twins. A quilted cloth made of shiny pale fabric, (Staying Afloat, 2014) looks like a row of ribs that has been surgically removed from the body. Its design is based on a woman’s life jacket from the late 19th century but reads as a girdle or restraint. Support (2014), a swollen, painted green life preserver with two misplaced holes for arms, has been mended with strips of plaster gauze and looks like it could fit a small child. I am reminded of Harmony Hammond’s bound and bandaged sculptures such as “Swaddled” from 1979.  Like Hammond’s, Lipke’s pieces speak of the ritual of their own making.

The fabric objects are imbued with ambiguity and defy definition. Abstraction becomes figuration. Female sexuality is combined with a critique of the domestic. Female body parts shapeshift into garments and vice versa. Layered paintings that suggest the interior of the body, now form its outer skin.  It seems apt that Lipke applies wax resist patterns (batik) to her muslin pieces, a technique used by ancient Egyptians when decorating strips of linen they used in the mummification process.

Lipke wraps, restores and repairs, consciously working within the tradition of women’s handicrafts. Reclaiming and re-using materials is an important part of this tradition, and is a key element in Lipke’s practice. She creates remnants from her paintings and dyed muslin.  She uses household castoffs such as her children’s old puffy jackets to patch together intestine like tubes. The pieces may begin as piles on the floor, but ultimately hang on the wall, which Lipke prefers as an “in between” site, allowing them to act as both paintings and sculptures. Some are arranged like group portraits, others as individual characters.  They often appear cheerful like children’s toys covered with splotches of bright color, bringing to mind the work of the artist Ree Morton,  who turned decorative motifs such as ruffles and swags into serious sculpture.   Lipke’s Solo Blue Limb (2015) made from a cut-off stocking, has been drenched with fabric dye, bound, tied up, and squeezed. It is painted in crusty red black and turquoise sections and is sliced down the middle.  It hangs like a trophy, an amputated body part that has been cut open to reveal a vagina dentata interior.   The piece attracts and repulses, and like many of the works, is a stand-in for the female figure. It appears to be a fabricated found object, specimen or anthropological artifact. 

When Lipke was 15 years old and visiting her family in England, she had an emergency appendectomy.  Because of overcrowding in the hospital she was placed in a ward with patients who had undergone amputations. Perhaps her creation of incomplete bodily forms, relates to this experience.  None of the sculptural hangings have bones.  They are awkward pliable channels, absent an inner structure, missing from something. The piece Loop Hoop (2015), a large multi-colored ring, circumscribes blank space and is bisected by a line. Others are fleshy rectangles that hang like empty picture frames. I am interested in that empty area, that invisible painting surrounded by its three-dimensional borders.  Here like Eva Hesse’s work Hang Up (1966), the physical edge that contains the painting becomes the subject.

Lipke has applied dabs of paint to a gnarled yarn weaving that hangs on her wall.  Its dense strong presence resembles an animal skin or a misshapen child’s blanket.  It appears completely contemporary, but was made in 1965 by her grandmother, the artist Patricia Sinclair Hall, whose work was never exhibited.  In an adjacent wall hanging, Lipke has pieced together sections of her grandmother’s weavings, inter-woven with her mother’s pantyhose.  Lipke’s process is not only a tribute to early feminist artwork. She establishes her identity as a third generation woman artist, inserting herself into the tradition of fiber arts used by her mother and grandmother.

Textiles have played an important role for generations of Lipke’s family. On her mother’s side, she descends from mill workers and  mill owners in Manchester, England. Lipke’s grandmother, Patricia Sinclair Hall, married into a family that owned a textile mill and her mother, the artist Catherine Hall remembers working in the dying vats there.  Manchester had been a center for spinning and weaving since the seventeenth century, when yarn and cloth were produced on a small scale at home. The introduction of the Flying shuttle in 1733, sped up the weaving process, while the Spinning Jenny, introduced in 1764, mechanized the spinning and twisting of cotton. These technological advances, along with the mass importation of cotton and the development of mills all contributed towards making Manchester the center of the textile trade during the Industrial Revolution. Over the course of the 20th century, the Manchester textile industry, despite some intermittent success, slowly collapsed.  Her grandfather’s business, William Hall & Co, which specialized in making and dying fancy mercerized yarns, suffered from the decline, and went bankrupt in the 1960’s. Lipke’s grandfather continued to run the business at home, however, buying thread from other factories and packaging them under his company’s name.  To this day, the house is stacked with floor to ceiling cartons of thread with barely enough space between the piles of boxes to allow people to maneuver from room to room.  Lipke showed me some of the sample cards that the women of the family were assigned to make. Different colors of thread were wound around each carefully labeled piece of cardboard.

Patricia Sinclair Hall made a loom out of plumbing pipes to make weavings out of the yarn that she was literally surrounded by. She also painted fabrics and used batik.  Catherine Hall has incorporated these crafts into her paintings as well, and in 2013 brought her mother’s loom over from England, passing it on to Lipke who threaded it and started to weave. The grid of warp and weft entered her paintings and drawings in the form of layers of color and crosshatched lines.  Then left over yarn from her grandfather’s business became integrated into her painting vocabulary, taking it beyond the canvas. 

 Lipke deftly incorporates traces of her mother and grandmother’s sensibility into her art, bringing together the physical, the personal and the historical.  Her richly layered abstract works project an uncanny bodily presence, evoking visual delight and a visceral response as they are continually labored over, woven and restored.