Fibrous Depths: John Paul Morabito’s Woven “Frottage”
July 8, 2018
By Anastatia Spicer, Hampshire College
Originally published in the 2018 print edition.
Surfaces are typically envisioned to be sites of differentiation, where self/other, object/subject are defined. The structure of weaving and supple qualities of cloth are a unique alternative to understanding surfaces as places of separation. Instead, woven surfaces expose the collaboration between countless distinct entities required to construct a single plane. The ability of cloth to absorb and record interaction highlights the vulnerability of surfaces as constantly in a process of translating and interacting with all that surrounds them.
Through examining contemporary weaver John Paul Morabito’s series, “Frottage,” which explores the profound knowledge woven surfaces carry, this essay seeks to imagine surfaces as places of unwieldy and surprising connection. This exploration is founded on the belief that surfaces, while presenting as stable and constant, are inherently sites of change and translation. What is possible when a surface, that which is envisioned to be concrete, becomes visibly receptive and malleable enough to be open to expanding and compressing, to engaging in a process of folding and unfolding?
“Frottage” is made up of over fifty grand swaths of cloth, layered with black-and-white woven images of charcoal rubbings, each roughly 50 x 40 inches. From across a room, the pieces appear to be hazy drawings which hang majestically, as if relics of gravestone rubbings. Tenderly slumping an inch off of the wall, the visceral density of the cloth is striking as a material intimately known to us through our constant interactions with fibers yet, in the context of the series, exists unabashedly in the realm of conceptual art. Standing as close as possible, each specific instance of black-and-white threads lifting and lowering, crossing each other, comes into focus. The singular interactions which have been set by the weaver gather to build the full body of cloth.
The structure of weaving is a simple over-under crossing of threads at right angles. Half of the threads, the warp, are tensioned lengthwise on a loom. Sections of the warp are raised, either by stepping on treadles (in the case of a floor loom), or by computer control (in the case of a jacquard loom).1 The gap created by the raised warp allows the weaver to pass the weft threads through, which run the width of the cloth. What becomes the surface is a structure built by countless threads, and it will always remain true that the undoing of one individual thread breaks the continuity of the whole.
In many of the pieces in “Frottage,” dozens of disparate, thin, black weft threads dangle from alongside and within the cloth, creating a liminal space between the surface of the work and the rest of the room. In “The Poetics of Softness,” art historian Max Kozloff considers the tendency to read fibrous or “soft” art as inherently corporeal. He writes that soft sculptures “mime a kind of surrender to the natural condition which pulls bodies down.”2 As the threads hang in webs directly expelling from the surface, they expose the individuated vulnerability necessary to the construction of weaving. In their liminal space between surface and “the rest,” they inhabit a unique state of being, as that which constructs the surface as well as something other. Their otherness reminds us that the pieces can be unraveled, frayed, undone, made anew. Quoting Swedish multimedia artist Öyvind Fahlström, Kozloff writes, “An object that gives in is actually stronger than one that resists, because it also permits the opportunity to be oneself in a new way.”3 The flexibility of threads embodies Falström’s notion of a malleable state of being. Holding the ability to gather, fray, tangle, and haphazardly construct, the dangling threads in “Frottage” visually question the stability of the surface and, through their disinvestment, create something new outside of it.
Each of the stages cloth and artist have gone through to construct “Frottage” incorporates chance interaction, translation and a play with the idea of individuality. Morabito composed each of the pieces through laborious processes mixing handweaving, rubbing, computer rendering, and jacquard weaving. First, cloth was woven on a floor loom—a process which requires the weaver to spend hours dressing the loom and slowly weaving the cloth, pick by pick.4 This cloth was then laid out and the artist took a rubbing of its surface. The rubbing was scanned and meticulously translated by the artist into a suitable digital template to be woven from. On the jacquard loom, warp threads are raised in programmed variations as they are read from the digital file the weaver has constructed. On the type of loom Morabito used, the weft threads are still thrown by hand, meaning Morabito’s touch is in conversation with the cloth through each step of the process, to vastly different degrees from digital manipulation to physical touch.
Through recording the layered quality of digital and physical interaction, Morabito constructs surfaces which are primarily concerned with what is above, below, and within them. As Morabito’s body comes in contact with the cloth, both flesh and fiber gather to record a translated interaction between hand, material, and technology. On the power of tactile records, textile artist and theorist Pennina Barnett writes, “To touch is always to be touched… And one never emerges intact from any encounter, for to be touched involves a capacity to be moved, ‘a power to be affected’… encounters where ‘subjectivity and affectivity become inseparable, (and) enfold each other.’”5 The latent surfaces in “Frottage” chronicle interactions between body, material, and technology. These interactions make the distinction between subject and object indistinguishable as the artist, material, and technique converge to form a visual multiplicity.
The woven black marks in “Frottage” act as apparitions, concealing and revealing the original handwoven cloth as well as the changes it has undergone. In an artist’s statement, Morabito describes the process of taking the rubbing of the cloth:
On the floor, I lay out cloth woven by my own hands and cover it with paper. Then, on my hands and knees, I rub the surface beneath me. These tactile impressions are made flesh again through the digital mediation of the jacquard. And they hang from the wall, sagging and bodily.6
Frottage is both a process used to make an artwork based on a rubbing as well as a form of sexual gratification through rubbing up against another person. Morabito plays with the two meanings of the word, specifically in Frottage #22 and Frottage #18, where the movement and weight of the hand are especially visible in the woven charcoal marks. The gestural marks meet with stark, horizontal blocks of darkened tone, reminiscent of a malfunctioning printer or scanner outputting images with uneven color. Morabito complicates the hierarchy between human and material; the rubbing involved in “Frottage” is not simply hand onto paper or the meeting of two bodies. This intimacy is extended to the scanner digitally reading the rubbing as well as the essential connection between hand and material.
The labors involved in “Frottage” all hold presence as they bring into question the relationship between hand, technology, the construction of cloth, and the visibility of labor. Each layer builds specters of labors-past as they trace transitions in textile production over the last two hundred years. They create what sociologist Avery Gordon calls “haunting” in her book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imaginary. Gordon defines haunting as a process by which attention is drawn towards the vibrancy of repressed or unresolved social ills, when “what’s been in your blind spot comes into view.”7 For Gordon, haunting is the force of injustice that holds presence through its unnamed absence.
In the case of “Frottage,” one of the most prominent histories bound to the surface is that of the jacquard attachment and its effects on the production of cloth. As if the final pieces are grave rubbings to the now impractical art of handweaving, only the felt texture of their surfaces survives to the final stage. Technological advances and capitalist values have rendered the once common knowledge of the construction of cloth rare. Although we are in constant, intimate contact with woven textiles, and the binary language foundational to all software originated from the first jacquard loom, the history of cloth production now seems irrelevant.
Invented by French weaver Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1804, the jacquard attachment was a transformational piece of technology. Employing a long chain of punch cards whose holes correspond to hooks which raise or lower particular warp threads, jacquard attachments allowed unprecedentedly intricate patterns to be woven. The binary code used by these punch cards was the foundational template for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine as well as Herman Hollerith’s census machine in 1887, widely regarded as the earliest form of computers.8 The early 1800s were riddled with protest from tradespeople who were losing work as a result of industrialization and as the attachment quickly became used across Europe, it furthered violent protests. In England, a group active in the early 1800s, The Luddites, became known for breaking into textile factories and destroying the new machines.9
Morabito’s “Frottage” engages with the history of this transition but does not buy into the age-old binary of hand versus technology. A stark distinction between handmade and machine-made has been essential to the social understanding and romanticization of crafts since the inception of the Arts and Crafts movement between 1880 and 1920. Influential craftspeople and writers of the era such as William Morris and John Ruskin placed craft as the direct opposite to the mechanization of labor they witnessed during industrialization. They envisioned a world of handmade objects where usefulness and beauty were prioritized over efficiency of production. This oppositional understanding of craft has set a foundation for idealizing the handmade as that which is antithetical to technological advances. Morabito complicates this binary by employing a mixture of hand work and technological translations within “Frottage.” On this topic, Morabito writes, “A dialogue between body, matter and machine. With the digital it draws the parallel language of drawing and sculpture into cloth.”10 For Morabito, the technological capabilities of the jacquard loom allow for cloth to become part of a more nuanced conversation between contemporary art, craft, and technology.
In “Frottage,” the cloth is a means of recording the depth of shifting and supple surfaces. Through holding this layered history, Morabito creates surfaces which absorb all that they come in contact with. In the works’ refusal to comply to presenting a stable, individual surface, they create what textile artist and theorist Pennina Barnett calls, an “and/and realm.”11 Binaries such as top/bottom, surface/the rest are incomprehensible in an and/and realm. Surfaces are not places where subject versus object or self versus other come to meet one another. Instead, it is where these distinctions become unclear, where one may become the other, may be changed by the other, or may no longer be comprehensible as a distinct self, as its relation to all that surrounds it becomes visible.
The touch of the cloth, the hand, and the computer bind and record each other through yielding into that with which they come into contact. Reliant on one another, supple, and forgiving in how they hold ways of knowing, these tactile knowledges become what Barnett calls “soft logics,” as “modes of thought that twist and turn and stretch and fold.”12 Each translation communicates a different form of tactile knowledge. “Frottage” leaves viewers with a beautiful, complex perception of surfaces and the powerful ways cloth knows and holds touch. The series offers an example of what a dynamic and latent surface can be, as something which responds and holds all it comes in contact with, while also distinctly carrying its own, majestically slumping in its wondrous vibrant and ominous depth.
1. Jacquard: Pronounced ja-kärd.
2. Max Kozloff, “The Poetics of Softness,” in Renderings: Critical Essays on a Century of Modern Art, (London: Studio Vista, 1970), p.233.
3. Ibid., 233.
4. Dressing the loom: the process of setting up the warp threads on the loom.
5. Pennina Barnett, “Folds, Fragments, Surfaces: Towards A Poetics of Cloth,” in The Textile Reader, ed. Jessica Hemmings, (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), 185.
6. The Asheville Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design, Tie Up, Draw Down, (Asheville, NC: CCCD, 2017), 13.
7. Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, (Minnesota: New University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 13.
8. Michael Swaine, “Analytical Engine,” Britannica, accessed March 15, 2018, https://www.britannica.com/technology/Analytical-Engine.
9. Power, Politics and Protest, “The Luddites,” The National Archives, accessed March 15, 2018, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/politics/g3/.
10. John Paul Morabito, Instagram, January, 19, 2018, @johnpaulmorabito.
11. Pennina Barnett, 183-184.
12. Ibid., 183-184.
The Asheville Center for Craft Creativity and Design. Tie Up Draw Down. Asheville, NC: CCCD, 2017.
Barnett, Pennina. “Folds, Fragments, Surfaces: Towards A Poetics of Cloth.” In The Textile Reader. Edited by Jessica Hemmings. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012.
Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minnesota: New University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Kozloff, Max. “The Poetics of Softness.” In Renderings: Critical Essays on a Century of Modern Art. London: Studio Vista, 1970.
Power, Politics and Protest. “The Luddites.” The National Archives. Accessed March 15, 2018. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/politics/g3/.
Swaine, Michael. “Analytical Engine.” Britannica. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/technology/Analytical-Engine.