Journal

Frances Trombly: Premeditated Effortlessness

The careful and time-consuming work revealed on the second look

By Tyler Emerson-Dorsch

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Frances Trombly is a weaver. In the past she made representations of everyday objects, mise en scène, left behind in a way to suggest that something happened there recently. They can look like crumpled pieces of paper, left on the floor, or receipts tacked on the wall. She wove white cloth by hand and embroidered blue and red lines so that the cloth resembled notebook paper. The careful and time-consuming work revealed on the second look underlines the will behind her decisions of content and placement. They are laborious ready-mades.[i] Someone, after all, always does the work.

Since 2010, her work has explored the potential of her fabric sculptures to shift between the distinct and often separated worlds of craft, design, painting and sculpture.[ii] This aligns her work with post-disciplinary practices, which seek to reveal the specifics of meanings within each milieu using techniques of simultaneity and hybridity.[iii] By eschewing complex patterns and technically exacting craft techniques in favor of straightforward patterns and processes, Trombly associates her work with the term “Sloppy Craft,” originally coined by the artist Anne Wilson in 2007.[iv] Scholarship on this term has revealed the wealth of possibilities in between the 2 poles of the binary suggested, and this is where we can locate Frances’ work.

Each of her pieces distills many choices into one or two key actions and concepts. In her 2010 show Paintings at Girls’ Club Collection, she stretched, leaned, floored and upholstered her bare handwoven canvases. Their austerity was breathtaking. They were blank, tabula rasa, but they were also everything, sculptures of Painting. In Over and Under, her 2013 piece at Locust Projects, a 75-foot long bolt of vivid handwoven and hand-dyed yellow fabric draped, zig-zag fashion, through the rungs of an aluminum scaffold. She sought to recall the forms of industrial looms, their usual purpose, and their history too. Textiles were one of the earliest innovations in the industrial revolution to take women and men from their cottage industries into a far more alienating workforce. The show’s budget covered the cost of the scaffold which she used in her alternative art space, which in turn supported her studio space.[v] More key actions reveal themselves in this piece – work, time, drape, support and interconnect.

Frances Trombly carefully drapes her hand woven canvas over stretcher bars.
Frances Trombly, Loose Canvas with Pink Embroidery, 2016 Handwoven cotton and hand-embroidered, hand-dyed silk 48 x 48 x 2 inches (121.92 x 121.92 x 5.08 cm)

If the handwoven fabric is a record of her time, and she drapes it ever so carefully over stretcher bars, styling it, then she heightens one’s awareness of her deliberation and will.

In wall works like Canvas Drape (2016), she embroiders hand-dyed pink silk onto her cotton fabric, adding color like painting would to her previously raw canvases. It’s important that the action is not painting, though, but embroidery, an action which entwines itself with the fabric. The fabric drapes to the floor in a twisting gesture from a single tack on the wall. Only the flat corner of the fabric is embroidered, to surprisingly intimate effect. In other works, she drapes the fabric just so over stretcher bars, so that it is both (or neither) painting and sculpture. If the handwoven fabric is a record of her time, and she drapes it ever so carefully over stretcher bars, styling it, then she heightens one’s awareness of her deliberation and will. The weight of patient and attentive labors lends conviction to her aesthetic and conceptual choices.

In Blue Folds (2015) Trombly’s woven blue sections seem to highlight her favorite detail – the peaks in the fabric’s graceful drape. The place in her fabric where vivid saturated hues of hand-dyed blue threads replace raw cotton is also somehow exactly where the peaks of drape lie. So, the first impression is misleading, and the reality, revealed only with slow looking, has the capacity to surprise. The order is important – she didn’t notice the beauty of the drape and then paint blue on the parts she wants us to see. She wove blue into the fabric first, then coaxed its presence there into peaks with caressing motions, a gentle fold here and there, a swipe, then step back. The piece is sensual, like Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers are sensual, and more so. Consider the tender touch and the extraordinary coincidence (there is no chance here; more the existence in the same time and place; the piece would not come together otherwise) of color and folds, like a woman’s vulva.

Turning back to theoretical context here can aid us in learning how to read Frances’ work. As stated above, it stands in relation to Sloppy Craft, a term which came into use around the time of a conscientiously provisional aesthetic in sculpture, epitomized in the show Unmonumental at the New Museum in 2007. Sloppy Craft refers to post-disciplinary craft practices in which skill is de-emphasized in favor of the conceptual and/or process based approach. Because the practice still inhabits the medium of craft – as in weaving or fiber arts – there is a compelling tension between the expectation of skill embedded in the medium and the turn away from that skill in favor of other ways to build and convey meaning.

Frances Trombly, Descending Blue, 2016 Handwoven cotton, hand-dyed silk, wood 72 x 36 x 2 inches (182.88 x 91.44 x 5.08)

In wall works like Canvas Drape (2016), she embroiders hand-dyed pink silk onto her cotton fabric, adding color like painting would to her previously raw canvases. It’s important that the action is not painting, though, but embroidery, an action which entwines itself with the fabric. The fabric drapes to the floor in a twisting gesture from a single tack on the wall. Only the flat corner of the fabric is embroidered, to surprisingly intimate effect. In other works, she drapes the fabric just so over stretcher bars, so that it is both (or neither) painting and sculpture. If the handwoven fabric is a record of her time, and she drapes it ever so carefully over stretcher bars, styling it, then she heightens one’s awareness of her deliberation and will. The weight of patient and attentive labors lends conviction to her aesthetic and conceptual choices.

In Blue Folds (2015) Trombly’s woven blue sections seem to highlight her favorite detail – the peaks in the fabric’s graceful drape. The place in her fabric where vivid saturated hues of hand-dyed blue threads replace raw cotton is also somehow exactly where the peaks of drape lie. So, the first impression is misleading, and the reality, revealed only with slow looking, has the capacity to surprise. The order is important – she didn’t notice the beauty of the drape and then paint blue on the parts she wants us to see. She wove blue into the fabric first, then coaxed its presence there into peaks with caressing motions, a gentle fold here and there, a swipe, then step back. The piece is sensual, like Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers are sensual, and more so. Consider the tender touch and the extraordinary coincidence (there is no chance here; more the existence in the same time and place; the piece would not come together otherwise) of color and folds, like a woman’s vulva.

Turning back to theoretical context here can aid us in learning how to read Frances’ work. As stated above, it stands in relation to Sloppy Craft, a term which came into use around the time of a conscientiously provisional aesthetic in sculpture, epitomized in the show Unmonumental at the New Museum in 2007. Sloppy Craft refers to post-disciplinary craft practices in which skill is de-emphasized in favor of the conceptual and/or process based approach. Because the practice still inhabits the medium of craft – as in weaving or fiber arts – there is a compelling tension between the expectation of skill embedded in the medium and the turn away from that skill in favor of other ways to build and convey meaning.

The term Sloppy Craft has this inherent tension, and practices that have a “sloppy” aesthetic are associated with it, in order to convey an intention to be classified as such, cuing a conceptual or process-based reading. Frances’ work eschews the sloppiness of, say, Josh Faught or Molly Zuckerman-Hartung. Its elegance challenges the binary system – either sloppy/conceptual or pretty/craft.[vi] Her work is legible based on the artist’s own accumulated steps from work to work over time, as she introduces an action word or two in each piece – the actions articulated in this essay. She represents linear time and work in her weavings. Her decision not to correct mistakes leaves distinctive burrs and puckers in the fabric. She does not stretch the fabric perfectly so that we can see that she stretched it. These are the “sloppy” characteristics. She employs a limited palette of patterns and colors, so that each change resonates more strongly. Here, sloppiness is not the right term anymore. A limited palette, and a pastel one at that, puts her in the company of the wonderfully subtle paintings by Agnes Martin and other artists associated with Minimalism, but upon closer consideration are anything but. The elegance in Frances’ work arises less from the craft than from the efficiency of conveying an idea with fabric and about her actions with it. Her spareness of moves, set off by space and poetically limited practical and sculptural vocabulary, rests in a room with harmony.
Picture Trombly, a slender woman with a natural air about her, as she readies her artworks for exhibition. She slowly unpacks the fabric, which is folded in a glassine envelope, and hangs it on the wall, according to plan. She then strokes the fabric and pulls it, until it hangs in the precise way she discovered in her studio. She steams it, so that the fabric flows toward the ground in the most graceful response to gravity I have ever seen. Then, she caresses it one last time, before turning away and leaving it to us.

[i] For an in-depth assessment of Frances Trombly’s relation to the Duchampian readymade, see Jenni Sorkin, “Lessness Labored Over: Frances Trombly’s Small Sculptures,” in Frances Trombly: Paintings (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Girls’ Club Collection, 2011).
[ii] Both Christopher Knight in an LA Times review in 2011 (“Five works simultaneously occupy multiple states…”) and Leah Ollman in an LA Times review in 2016 (“what confident trespassers”) noted the shapeshifter aspect of Frances’ work.
[iii] Eds. Elaine Cheasley Paterson and Susan Surette. Sloppy Craft: Postdisciplinarity and the Crafts. (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2015)
[iv] ibid, 2.
[v] Frances Trombly runs an alternative art space called Dimensions Variable with fellow artist and life partner Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova. They started the space when a developer agreed to give them space for their studios in return for a cultural activation of the building. Since then DV has economically supported their studios in addition to discursive and network support for their individual practices. It strikes me that the interconnectedness and contingency of Over and Under is also the rhizomatic support system, the fabric, for the artists’ lives and work.
[vi] Paterson and Surette, eds., ibid, xxiv-8. My discussion of Sloppy Craft is from a close read of the book’s foreword and introduction. I summarize its definitions and discussion thereof closely, because they are very useful in orienting newcomers to Frances’ work. The editors discuss Josh Faught throughout the book. The book is excellent, and its discourse is fundamental to a deeper consideration of Frances Trombly’s work.