Art News NZ: An Art of Unbounded Storytelling

Emma Fitts brings together disparate eras, people, art forms and ideas in her creative practice, hoping “to rewire our way of thinking, not only about history but also about our current situation”. Bronwyn Lloyd finds out more.

A Möbius loop, Lee Krasner, Beatrice Tinsley, a defunct radar control station in the Marin Headlands, an assortment of garment pattern pieces: what have they to do with Emma Fitts or they to one another?

I’m riffing off the title of a poem by Michele Leggott to articulate the question that arose in my mind when I visited IFF: An Ideal Museum at Melanie Roger Gallery in Auckland. This solo exhibition by Emma Fitts resulted from her 10-week stay at the Headlands Center for the Arts in San Francisco as the recipient of the 2019 Fulbright-Wallace Arts Trust residency.

The first work I encountered was the large canvas piece Möbius Loop (2019), hanging from a nail in the window space partitioned off from the main gallery. The fabric loop, painted in orange acrylic, looked slumped and heavy in the window, but inside the gallery there it was again in a sequence of photographs on the back of the moveable wall. This time it was animated, contorted and ballooning out in the wind, attached to a railing on a promontory at Hill 88, the abandoned Cold War military installation not far from the studio and accommodation where Fitts stayed during her residency. The suite of photographs was named Identification, Friend or Foe (2019), in response to Hill 88’s history. It neatly explained the acronym that formed the first part of the exhibition’s title.

Seated at a table at the Cheviot pub during a brief spell of connectivity on her summer holiday, Fitts composes a response to my set of questions about IFF: An Ideal Museum. “Every weekend at the Headlands,” Fitts explains, “they would open up the Nike Missile site and men who had worked there in the 1950s would give tours. It was there that I found out about Identification, Friend or Foe, which was used at the radar site atop Hill 88 to communicate with aircraft flying in and out of the area. I liked the seeming simplicity of the system in the messy situation of the Cold War, so I decided to send out my own kind of signal from that same point. I twisted the piece of fabric into the Möbius loop at the top of Hill 88, using the remains of the old radar site as its point of attachment.”

As I turned to explore the other works in IFF, my mind was already hard at work pondering the interpretative possibilities of the geometric paradox that is a Möbius loop. One wall was occupied by two densely layered canvas wall-hangings: the first paying tribute to American abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner, and the second to British-born New Zealand astronomer and cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley. The layered elements of the two works (both 2019) were made up of the pattern pieces for two garments: Flight Jacket for Beatrice Tinsley in saturated hues of blue on a variegated orange ground, and Hooded Jacket for Lee Krasner in a combination of hot oranges, reds and pinks.

Fitts explains that there is a conceptual link between the jackets and the Möbius loop, “a form in which all surfaces are activated, and where the inside becomes the outside and the front becomes the back”.

“I like this connection to clothing,” she comments, “the haptic understanding of cloth, the way that we understand a garment when looking at it, both the inside and the outside.”

Since her return to Aotearoa from the United Kingdom in 2014 to take up the Olivia Spencer Bower residency, Fitts’ output has been nothing short of prolific. Successive bodies of textile works exhibit a variety of craft-based techniques, such as weaving and felting, and use a combination of raw materials and repurposed textiles. Her draped banners, wall-hangings, weavings, floating room dividers and soft sculptural forms operate as fabric tributes to notable women from the past, including artists Olivia Spencer Bower, Zena Abbott, Louise Henderson, Judy Patience and Marlow Moss.

“I’ve always been interested in alternative histories,” Fitts writes, “in non-linear storytelling and random, meaningful links, which allow for a telling of a life that is more expansive – more fluid. One that accepts the reality of events unfolding with multiple happenings and multiple people. The moment has passed for us to go back and give a more detailed and accurate account of these women, and we can’t time travel, so in my practice I’m working with the histories we have but trying to bring up new information through forming new connections between them. I enjoy asking questions that are often perceived as impossible to answer. What happens if we introduce Beatrice Tinsley’s discoveries of spatial infinity to the life of artist Lee Krasner? Does this help our understanding of either Krasner or Tinsley? It feels like important work to me.”

A flight jacket seems wholly appropriate as Fitts’ garment of choice to pay homage to Beatrice Tinsley, a woman notable for her groundbreaking research into galaxy evolution. Fitts is drawn to Tinsley because of her powerful retelling of time and her concept of an unbound universe. “I sought out a relationship between my work and Tinsley’s,” Fitts notes, “and I imagined using her concepts as tools for future ideas.” 

Fitts regards the garment pieces that make up her fabric tributes to inspirational women as a kind of “flexible armour”. In recent bodies of work the jacket has been favoured by Fitts because of its amorphous qualities. A jacket can be fitted or loose, and she also likes the idea that a jacket is outerwear, associated with action, as well as having a practical dimension – some have hoods for protection, some pockets that operate as a kind of tool within the garment.

Irving Penn’s 1972 portrait of Lee Krasner was the inspiration for Fitts’ Hooded Jacket for Lee Krasner. In the photograph, Krasner is dressed in a soft leather jacket, her head shrouded by the garment’s oversized hood, and she confronts the lens with an enigmatic expression that is one part defiant and two parts world-weary.

The elliptical form of the hood in the portrait appealed to Fitts. She notes that one of Beatrice Tinsley’s research papers deals with this elliptical shape within galaxy evolution, so in using the shape she was able to nod to the identities of both women at once. Tinsley’s career also provided a geographical link between New Zealand and America, and when Fitts embarked on the Headlands residency she looked to Krasner, and the important role she played in the development of abstract expressionism, to ground her in America.

Fitts’ brightly coloured line-up of 10 framed Jacket Cut Outs (2019) in IFF are reminiscent of Krasner’s collages from the 1950s made from the cut-up and reconstituted shards of failed paintings. The colourful array of overlapping pattern pieces become an abstract composition, demonstrating the myriad compositional possibilities of layering shapes and colours. The smaller collages started with off-cuts from the larger works which Fitts then added to by increasing the intensity of colour and contrast. “Collage speaks to movement in layered and almost temporal form,” she explains. “The small collages gather up the pieces that fall through the net of the larger art-historical canon that was slow to admit Lee Krasner.”

The canvases for the large works were soaked in paint, so that both the front and back of the works were activated. Fitts then re-orientated the canvases from horizontal to vertical and folded them over so that part of the back of canvas was at the front. The garment pieces are only attached along one surface at the top, with gravity holding them in place. “The feeling that there is potential for movement or even rearrangement in the work is always important to me,” she notes.

In conception, IFF: An Ideal Museum cleverly continues the body of work Fitts produced for her exhibition In the Rough that resulted from her tenure as artist in residence at the McCahon House in 2018. Staged across three locations – The National, Christchurch, Parlour Projects, Hastings, and Te Uru Waita¯kere Contemporary Gallery, Titirangi – between September 2018 and May 2019, In the Rough Parts 1, 2 & 3 was a remarkable instance of unbounded storytelling.

Across the three exhibition locations, a changing configuration of works combined Fitts’ textile responses to the intimate portraits of American painter Romaine Brooks; photographs by Neeve Woodward of those textile works in situ at the former home of Anne and Colin McCahon in French Bay; and aspects of the interior-design philosophy of Irish modernist Eileen Gray. They were united by an overarching concept about the need to engage with primary materials articulated by German-born American textile artist Anni Albers.

In the Rough Parts 1, 2 & 3 engaged the viewer on many levels. There was the sensory experience of the textile works themselves, and their strategic positioning around the gallery spaces. The viewer then experienced the same pieces again in the photographs, at one remove. Conversation between the works changed in each new configuration. This was designed to activate the viewer’s thinking about history, gender, sexuality, materiality and our felt response to art. “Through presenting ideas about textiles and tactility alongside or mixed up with ideas of painting, photography, sculpture and architecture,” Fitts writes, “I am trying to give people a greater understanding of tactility.”

The art of unbounded storytelling continues for Emma Fitts in 2020. From her studio in Ōtautahi, Christchurch, she plans to develop a series of larger canvas works that continue her experiments with the saturated painting technique she evolved during her Headlands residency. The inspiration for the projected body of work is a Fiordland peak named after Beatrice Tinsley.

“After nearly a decade of living away from New Zealand,” she writes, “I’m really enjoying the feeling of being home with all this amazing landscape at my fingertips. I am excited to make work in the lower South Island, a landscape that offers a spatial experience of climatic changes, isolation and limitlessness.”

IFF: An Ideal Museum was at Melanie Roger Gallery, Auckland, from 13 November to 7 December 2019. Fitts currently has work in the group show Paint etc. at Corban Estate Arts Centre, until 5 April, and photographs from In the Rough will be shown by Melanie Roger Gallery at Auckland Art Fair, 30 April to 3 May. Fitts also has solo exhibitions upcoming at The National, Christchurch, in August, and at Parlour Projects, Hastings, in November.

Art News NZ: An Art of Unbounded Storytelling