Intimacy creeps, write Christine Borland and her daughter, in diaristic entries on nurturing flax. It is a proximation to the body, a knowledge, touch.
I trace this intimacy through the works of Borland, but also of Karla Black and Gwenan Davies. These women—it is significant—take what’s close to hand—quotidian matter, habitual movements, daily ritual. They ask what is home beyond a place in which we dwell; when there is nowhere else to go; when other forms of labour enter the room. They practice intimacy, as the closest thing to home.
In Socialist Realism, a personal exploration of identity through radical politics and notions of home, Trisha Low writes, ‘I don’t want to escape. I don’t want to find a correct shape, a cure, or a form. I don’t want a home. I want a new paradigm of interaction.’ By labouring in it, the notion of the home—and a woman’s place—becomes elastic. Despite their divergent aesthetics, the works conspire in quotidian matter—often domestic. For Black and Borland, that matter is the medium—Black co-opts household cleaning products and polystyrene, Vaseline, marble dust; Borland, flaxseed, fibres, earth. For Davies the matter is in her paintings—material surfaceslike table tops and walls, become compositional frames. Together, they speak of broken systems and the structures that hold us; of ruptured spaces and liminal ones; and time—retrospectively, leisurely, passing—and the fallacy of permanence. Intimacy creeps like time, through the work—and whispers of the future.
The artists are intimate with their materials—materials that are, by nature, mostly transient; materials stretched beyond their domestic use; materials that result in something other than figuration. Bodies are not seen but felt in Black’s gestural smears and marks and in the stems of flax, hand-pressed and bent into form by Borland’s labour. They are also felt in Davies’ vacant ‘Room after class’(2021). In the tradition of 1970s feminist projects such as Womanhouse and 43 Auxiliary Lane and the 1980s women’s self-build group Take Root (incidentally the subject of Winnie Herbstein’s filmic triptych Dampbusters, currently at CCA)—these three artists prize apart the spaces that hold us.
Karla Black’s sculptures (2001-2021), at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh, form her own dialectic in cotton wool pads, paint, nail varnish, thread. Reticent to call it a retrospective, Black gathers works from the last twenty years that still spark for her—works that have spilled, will disintegrate and break apart. Golden gilded glass panels and ovoid mirrors are smeared and streaked with cosmetic creams; totemic paper forms are varnished in shimmering blusher and caked in foundation that cracks, like skin, at the folds. In ‘Punctuation is pretty popular: nobody wants to admit to much’ (2008/2021) she scales this up, filling a sunlit room with Pepto-Bismol-pink plaster powder, then disrupting the smooth surface with reams of unravelled thread that leaves its own tracks.
Despite appearances, the saccharine palette of domestic life is, Black says, an aesthetic choice, in that the work does not ‘point outside of itself to meaning’. It is self-sufficient—interior and personal rather than insular. By working alone with her materials, Black, like Borland, emphasises the physicality of making and the interaction between the body, the material and the space. She ladders and stretches tights into canvases, leaves imprints and track marks in plaster and mud. In ‘Waiver for Shade’ (2021), she responds to the Fruitmarket’s new bare-brick warehouse and industrial architecture with tectonic mounds of earth and scatters bent metallic sheets of gold and copper leaf. Each form infers the motion of her body and her reach.
‘Ripple’, writes Christine Borland, of flax cultivation and the process of combing out seeds from the plant. ‘My eldest daughter works with me to remove the seeds; she wears a shocking pink silk skirt. We put the seed pod ends of the bunches into pillow-cases and use our weight to crush them with rolling pins.’ Borland’s Relation to Linum at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh traces the life-cycle of flax through her own haptic and material gestures.
In Latin, Linum Usitatissimum means ‘most useful’ and time bears witness. For over 4,000 years, its fine long stems and five bluish-purple petals have been grown for their lustrous,strong fibre and nutrient-rich seeds. Originating around the Mediterranean, and found later in Medieval Europe, flax growing and linen-making became central to the textiles industry in 18th century Scotland. In 2020, in lieu of access to the RBGE, Borland distributed flax seeds to community allotments, co-opted public spaces and private gardens across the country. Women, mainly, grew flax; sharing their progress and rituals online through #Lineation. For Borland, it became a point of connection—to the earth, to these women, her daughters, the seasons and the past—sustaining her through months of containment in the home.
The artist and her daughter Grace Borland Sinclair recorded the 100-day growing cycle in diaristic entries, blending the language of science and botany, with farming and home. In The Sower’s Daughter’s Guide, she returns to women’s plant lore—largely lost to the industrial revolution—and ancient farming and textiles techniques—winnow, ripple, rett, break. Their personal and fragmentary writing and staccato notes read like seeds scattered in the palm of your hand.
Borland’s subject and her material commingle, as they do for Black, in fine watercolour drawings on flax-tow paper, ‘The Flax Sower’, ‘Rake’ (both 2020), and in pressed stems, like cyphers tacked to the wall, marking variants between growers. In ‘Home Spirit Specimens’ (2020), Borland preserved a stem of flax in alcohol each day, and presents them here in test-tubes, co-opting the apparatus of science for the purpose of art-making. Delicate, iterative and embryonic, their translucent anatomy glitters in sunlight with X-ray clarity.
‘Relation to Linum’, like Black’s Fruitmarket show, is reflective rather than retrospective. The practice is in motion—the material generative. All three women resist permanence—space, like time, shifts Often it is cyclical— Borland is still growing flax in the RBGE gardens where the voluptuous seed heads are nearing harvest.
And so time passes, as it does in Gwenan Davies’ diaristic paintings. Modest in scale, they document the ‘ubiquitous everyday’ in iterative still lifes. Drawn from long hours sitting in cafes, food-halls, classrooms, Davies observes, and passes, time through quotidian matter. At CCA, works like ‘Cups’ (2020), ‘Window’, ‘Wall’(2021), ‘Coffi’ (2020) depict residual surfaces, void of people though we sense their presence.
Davies forges a kind of intimacy in the motif of the coffee cup, the familiar table top. From this preparatory work she slices the rough boards and canvases into off-set grids, fracturing the composition and thus the room. She interrupts the architecture of a space twice over by constructing a ‘room’ of display boards in the gallery. In ‘Room After Class’ (2021) she reduces the walls to the colour of bare bone, draws simple, indelibly thin lines, and then punctuates the matte substance with a single window of irrevocably blue sky.
Beyond matter, these artists share an interest in repetition—compositional in Davies’ habitual interactions, of process in Borland’s seed cultivation, and aesthetic in Black’s form. Gertrude Stein said that repetition is merely insistence.
I return to Borland’s creeping intimacy and Trisha Low, who says revolutionary art, ‘was about stigmata, something that could push through. About transforming material politics into an ethics of intensity.’ Such a tacit state sings to Borland, Black and Davies, who probe material and space, transforming it through intimacy. So that we ask—Low asks—‘what is home if not a void, at the end of day. An ache.’
Rose Higham-Stainton writes about art, literature and aesthetics, through feminist thought. Her writing is held in the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths College and has been published by PIN—UP Magazine, MAP Magazine, Ache, SPAM, Sticky Fingers Publishing, Antenne Books. Her first book Herema was published by Sticky Fingers Publishing in June 2021.
In Relation of Linum,Christine Borland, at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
21 July-3 October 2021
sculptures (2001-2021),Karla Black, Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, 7 July-24 October 2021
Tôn Gron, Gwenan Davies, Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow, Fri 23 July — Sat 14 August 2021
Socialist Realism, Trisha Low, (Minneapolis and Brooklyn: Coffee House Press, 2019)