book review

selvedges: janis jeffries, writings and artworks since 1980

If there is any place to begin Janis Jefferies selvedges it is in anticipation-book closed on your lap, savoring the desire to read pages as you open them. The book, itself spiral bound, wants to be opened and for its pages to be turned backwards and forwards. Its weight is light and familiar in the hand, like a journal carried around in one's bag for recording stolen moments, questions, thoughts and ideas. The format of the journal seems very appropriate for a collection of Jefferies's essays about her own and others' contemporary tex1ile practices. Jefferies writing challenges the closure pre-eminent among art history texts, that seek to espouse truths and define boundaries between artistic genres. selvedges' fragmented parts, written over a period of fifteen years, refuse to establish any clear cut, self-contained narrative about textiles. Instead, the writing in this collection searches out and around itself to find a rhythm and measure for those elements of textile practice that are not swaddling and suffocating but flexible and open. The capacity of an object or texture to suggest the presence of something absent, a veil-like characteristic which enables textiles to speak most fully of an otherness before themselves. Jefferies has the capacity to retrieve these aspects of her own and others' contemporary textile practice within her writing. But how? There is what Sarat Maharaj in his forward describes as an 'unscriptedness' to the way Jefferies writes and makes sense of her subjects. A capacity to mobilise what is otherwise fairly dense theory and language to retrieve a sense of being passionately and intimately engaged with her subject as an ongoing, developing, entity. Importantly, the reader is encouraged to share this engagement. Moving through different parts of the publication, the act of reading, moving forward and tracing back, drawing threads between ideas and works, echoing Jefferies and the artists' processes becomes in itself an engagement with textile practice. A kind of interactive ad lib of reading, thinking and developing of practice. Jefferies also quite bravely introduces the personal into her writing. Not in a didactic sense with lots of authorial 'l's', but through the acknowledgement of a reader's subjective responses to her voice. Rising and falling , Jefferies written voice questions, ponders, vibrates and whispers her thoughts as they occur. The effect is like listening to a person speaking in a second, not fully grasped language. The physicality of the voice is prominent, carrying, as it does, the effort of at once translating, speaking, and listening. The reader is drawn into this effort and becomes aware of their own responsibility in listening, translating and interpreting which enables, in turn, a listening/reading that moves between abstraction and experience, self and other. In all of this movement, the tactile and textural is central. By tactile and textural I mean the physicality of 'stuff and the way that it resonates beyond and despite any visual experience. This manifests most strongly in Jefferies awareness of the reader as a sensual body capable of being moved by the memory of the tactile and touch. By moving from quite early essays about Abakanowicz to Jefferies writing and images of her own work, the reader is made aware that 'as we handle and work with fibre we discover our own languages; we become our own witnesses and storytellers'.1 For Jefferies, textiles are an integral part of being in the world. Not only in the sense that they clothe, shelter and assist to sustain us, but that they contribute to the way that we construct identities and meaning. As a result the content of selvedges includes discussion of artists as diverse as Mike Kelley and Marcel Marois, Eva Hesse and Yinka Shonibare. Discussions range over issues surrounding gender, race, subjectivity, sexuality, trade, tradition, language and modernism. The writing in selvedges proceeds through an understanding that the materials and meanings of textiles form out of its negotiations, co-existence and interaction with other practices, identities and circumstances. selvedges is an important publication because it documents and develops the significant contributions that Jefferies as an artist, writer, teacher, speaker and curator has made to the development of contemporary textile practice. Generous is another word that quickly springs to mind. selvedges is a generous publication, providing spaces for the textile loving reader to move beyond the need for tightly held boundaries. Jefferies is able to articulate the potential of textiles without reductive categorisation or historical posturing. Selvedges engages its reader, involving them in a process of discovery and exchange which will continue to inform their creative journeys.

notes: 

1. 'Magdalena Abakanowicz: Polish Ghos1s', se/vedges, Janis Jefferies: writings and artworks since 1980. Norwich Gallery. Norwich, p.23.