Dust Against Dust
My costs are low: 2-dollar fabric from Goodwill, patterns bought for 99 cents or less, notions found at estate sales for 1 or 3 dollars. I almost save money like this. The fabric still contains the hours of the lives, those of the farmers and shepherds and chemists and factory workers and truckers and salespeople and the first purchasers, the givers-away, who were probably women who sewed.”
— Anne Boyer, “Sewing”
There are a lot of different kinds of labour layered over each other in Karen Kraven’s latest body of work. There are also a lot of bodies that leave traces of their presence; none of them actually appear, but their absence is the space in which the art takes place. The lives of objects stand in for the lives of their producers.
The central elements of the show are a series of fabric sculptures hung on custom brackets. They’re based on 1970s Vogue patterns that once belonged to Kraven’s mother, but the halter tops and blouses they were intended for aren’t recognizable in the abstracted, unwearable, but unmistakably garment-like volumes that Kraven has sewn from recombinations of the pattern’s details with pieces that were meant to be discarded. These elegantly reconstructed scraps are both fragile and stately, like ceremonial regalia, though they feel too abject to be celebratory. Their delicately-fashioned assortments of draping silks and non-anatomical openings can’t help but conjure the impression of damaged bodies, knit back together with bits of indulgent lingerie, decorative ruins.
Though the fabrics weren’t deliberately chosen to match the illustrations on the pattern envelopes, they’re still retro, outmoded but chic, hinting at the lives that touched them, now passed or passing: purple organza, polyester taffeta in jewel-toned green, slub silk and brown plaid. These mass-produced patterns belong to an era in which handmade clothes were a common pursuit of homemakers. But here the handmade is also complexly interwoven with the industrial: the patterns, the store-bought fabrics, milled in unknown locales, the steel brackets on which they hang, and so on.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, photographs document two uncanny doubles: a disintegrating tarp found in a storage shed and a store-bought replica, distressed to identical specifications, both captured in the same posture of artfully-lit billowing. Photographs of textiles are a recurring theme in Kraven’s work. Previously, she’s often focused on how pattern and transparency can fool and excite the eye; her references to sleight-of-hand, sport, gambling, and counterfeiting have been visually and intellectually dazzling. These latest works, however, are some of her least referential and most personal and subjective. Rather than the eye, they address the body and the hand: wearers, workers, wounded.
In one work, the hand appears literally. It’s another doubling: Kraven has replicated the pattern paper used to create her sculptures with a drawing on cut japanese tissue paper, fastened to the wall with bronze pins cast in the form of the 27 bones of the hand. This act of dismemberment (the hand broke into decorative skeletal components, each dutifully set to work) is echoed by the weapon-like three-foot steel needles, twelve in total,
that are strewn throughout the gallery. Milled by a small-scale “garage shop,” these outsized sewing tools sit somewhere between the industrial and artisanal.
What does it add to these works to know that Kraven’s Zayde worked in the schmata industry in Winnipeg and that her late father ran a sweater factory in Stratford, Ontario—or that her mother studied fashion and worked as a model? Grief is personal, and objects tend not to appear with records of the tears expended in their production. The joy of craft, like the pleasures of shopping, is rarely guilt-free. Can one make a monument from discarded receipts?
Text by Saelan Twerdy
Karen Kraven holds an MFA from Concordia University (Montreal, QC). She has presented recent solo exhibitions at NADA House (Governors Island, NYC); at The Toronto Sculpture Garden (Toronto, ON); at the Darling Foundry (Montreal, QC); at 8-11 (Toronto, ON); at Mercer Union (Toronto, ON); and at The Institute of Contemporary Art (Portland, ME). Her work has also been shown at MKG127 (Toronto, ON); at 17/18, The Embassy of the Czech Republic (Ottawa, ON); at La Friche la Belle de Mai (Marseille, FR); at The Power Plant (Toronto, ON); at Clint Roenisch Gallery (Toronto, ON); and at Leonard & Ellen Bina Gallery (Montreal, QC)