Bay Area Artist Josh Faught Weaves Layered HistoriesAuthor:Robyn Wise
“To me, textiles are a very broad, complex and politicized landscape,” says artist Josh Faught of his chosen material. Currently on view in San Francisco as part of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ triennial survey of Northern California art, Faught’s work takes the form of sculptures made from hand-dyed, hand-woven fibers. Typically stitched onto stretched linen or draped over wooden armature, his pieces are highly embellished, featuring homespun construction methods—loom-weaving, knitting and crocheting—as well as text elements and kitschy found objects that provide a structure for exploring the intertwined histories of craft, gender politics and what the artist calls a “compulsion toward decoration.” Each work is enigmatic, imbued with deep cultural research and asks to be confronted on its own terms. Here, the award-winning artist and associate professor of textiles and sculpture at California College of the Arts (CCA) shares the ideas behind his practice and his works included in YBCA’s exhibition.
Your ongoing interest in textiles stems from a place where the medium’s aesthetic and sociopolitical histories intersect. As an artist, I learned how to weave before I learned how to draw, but textiles had been in my life before that—my grandmother taught me how to knit. I was a pre-teen at summer camp when I wove on a floor loom for the first time. It was just a camp activity, and I initially forgot about it. But looking back now, I see a relationship between the recognition that I’m a gay man and that transitional time in my life when I was learning how to weave. Summer camp became one of the first queer spaces I knew, and it intersected with my introduction to weaving and fiber craft.
After finishing undergraduate studies in art history and English, I moved to New York City with the idea that I would pursue photography and get a job at a magazine—I had been taking a lot of photography classes on the side. I ended up working as a production assistant for Nest magazine, which I loved for its wild irreverence and conceptual approach to interiors. This became a really pivotal experience. I began considering the psychology of pattern and ornamentation, and why we decorate certain spaces in certain ways.
After that I attended Fashion Institute of Technology for a year, thinking I would become a textile designer. But I quickly realized I wasn’t cut out for the industry. We were graded on how fast we could do things. Everything was color-forecasted. Around that time, I began thinking back on my early photography work and formulating this idea of trying to trace a nebulous queer sensibility through decoration. This led to graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I first started exploring textiles as a fine art form and a means of broader political inquiry.
You’ve talked about textiles as a kind of language. The word ‘textile’ comes from the same etymological root in Latin as ‘subtext’ or ‘context’. There’s a quote by Bauhaus artist Anni Albers that I love. She said, ‘we should let threads be articulate,’ and that’s always really spoken to me—this idea of a textile being both functional and expressive, that it contains a kind of multiplicity of voices. Flashing forward from Bauhaus to the ‘60s and ‘70s, and later again in the ‘80s, you see a resurgence of interest in textiles as a form of speech, when artists like Sheila Hicks and Ed Rossbach and Miriam Schapiro were using fiber art as a surrogate platform for political thought and action around feminism and identity.
For your SFMOMA commission in 2013, you created three site-specific works inside the Neptune Society Columbarium, which houses thousands of inurnment niches as part of the only nondenominational cemetery in San Francisco. What was your interest in this site? The building itself was erected at the turn of the twentieth century. In the late 1970s, it underwent a restoration just as San Francisco was witnessing the initial surge of the AIDS crisis. The ashes of many of those casualties ended up there, and so I see it as an accidental AIDS memorial and happenstance queer archive. The sculptures I made are a response to this. One of my favorite niches features someone’s ashes in a Chinese food takeout container, which is next to another person who put their ashes in a gefilte fish jar. There’s a humor and levity side by side with death here that’s really interesting to me. You also see lots of food offerings and kitschy pins with motivational sayings. I reference these in the work with the text elements and rubber snack items they incorporate.
What inspired the color palette for these pieces? The building itself. Like all my work, the fibers are hand-dyed and hand-woven. In this case, the fiber is hemp and it’s dyed in a William Morris-inspired palette of colors like indigo blue, cochineal pink and weld yellow, which reference the Arts and Crafts era when the Columbarium was built. I love natural botanical colors because they’re steeped in mythology and have a fugitive, temperamental quality to them.
The Columbarium body of work directly led to another series, which is represented by Max, one of the three works on view in Bay Area Now at YBCA. As I was considering all these memorial niches, I was also thinking about anonymity. You see a Bob next to a Joe and then a Sam. But there is also something very specific about the names. Right after that project, I started another body of work where I made a textile sculpture named after every one of my ex-lovers. Max is one of these pieces. It’s woven in silver lamé and hemp that I hand-dyed to match the fashion-forecasted colors for 2014, which is the year I made it. I like the idea that this piece becomes unfashionable at a certain point in time, that it will expire. It’s a specific marker of time, just like a relationship.
Tell us about the other works on view in BAN8. Attachments started with a Dover clip-art book. I have this one with border patterns in it, and I love the idea that you are invited to photocopy and manipulate these copyright-free images as much as you like. In a similar way, I wove these panels and then cut them up and pieced them back together. I was also thinking of the work as functioning like bulletin board, which is a form of visual abstraction but also represents a community’s desire to speak. It’s a formally beautiful collage and also a potentially contentious speaking ground. The text is appropriated from an old self-help book about gay lifestyle for the newly “out” person.
In the other work [Interiority Complex], I wanted to indulge in pure pattern and abstraction. I was thinking again about the Pattern and Decoration movement of the ‘70s and early ‘80s and how, to me, some of it is pretty garish even by today’s standards. It’s a real skill to be able to create something that stays ugly for long periods of time, because trends have a cyclical way of making ugly things fashionable again. So, it’s partly about shifting notions of taste.
Many of your textiles are pieced versus continuously woven. Is there a significance to this construction method? Yes and no. Often times I work with looms that can only contain a certain amount of information at once, so it’s pragmatic to weave in strips. Other times strip-piecing or Frankensteining the fabric together embodies the metaphor I’m thinking about. I like this idea that I’m feeling my way through the textile, and that my voice or my sentiment changes as I make it. There’s a kind of productive ambivalence in the work, a sense of instability that’s intentional, like if you pulled one thread everything might unravel.
Josh Faught’s sculptures are on view as part of Bay Area Now 8 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco through March 24, 2019.
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