Frances Trombly: Not Paintings

By Bonnie Clearwater
Published for the exhibition Frances Trombly: Paintings
Girls’ Club, Fort Lauderdale, FL, United States

Frances Trombly has been fabricating trompe l’oeil objects out of fiber for over a decade. Typically these look like mundane items such as white ruled paper crumpled and tossed into a corner, flaccid colorful party balloons skirting the floor, piles of multi-hued confetti, mops, and giant tarpaulins. Trombly so skillfully weaves or crochets these everyday objects that it is easy to mistake them for the real thing. Humble by nature and scattered nonchalantly around the gallery space these works tend to elude the viewer’s immediate attention.

In her recent exhibition for the Girls’ Club, Trombly takes a different tack by filling the space with objects that look like paintings. Here the woven fabric functions as one would expect—canvas mounted on wood stretchers—rather than as a medium for producing a replica of an everyday item. They are also objects one expects to find in a gallery. Paintings hold a privileged position in the hierarchy of objects as they are expressly made to be looked at, and in fact, serve no other function. In this installation, objects that look like paintings are elevated off the floor by wooden bumpers, stacked against one another, or lean against white minimal benches. Although none of the paintings hang on the wall, they remain the center of attention to the point that one might initially miss the fact that the bench cushions, woven in the same material as the paintings, are part of the installation. The paintings immediately declare themselves as art, whereas the benches do not.

The logo Trombly designed as the title for the exhibition—the word “Painting” with a thread-like line struck across it, alerts the viewer that these are not paintings, and moreover that the objects that look like paintings were woven. Although the cloth looks monochrome, upon closer inspection one discerns a minimal grid pattern created by the weave and slight variation of the shade and sheen of the fiber. Although the surface is flat, natural pulls occur that provide a tactile quality and even an optical spatial experience. Because the objects look like paintings the viewer might compare them to other minimal compositions by Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, or surrogate objects that signify painting such as Blinky Palermo’s works constructed of swaths of store bought fabrics sewn together and mounted on stretchers, or Allan McCollum’s blank plaster objects that look like framed pictures. It is also easy to mistake these works as unpainted canvases.

The fact that Trombly’s paintings are literarily reduced to the woof and warp of the weave connects them to a lineage of modern painting that leads directly back to Helen Frankenthaler’s breakthrough stained canvases that were hailed by some critics for fusing the thinned pigment directly into the “woof and warp of the weave” and thereby reducing the optical illusions of space. Frankenthaler’s gesture also led to the end of painting as it emphasized the canvas as a three-dimensional object that crossed into the realm of sculpture. Modernism’s elusive goal of producing pure mediums—painting restricted only the properties of pigment on a flat picture plane and sculptural works that emphasized their density, weight and gravity—is elegantly played out in Trombly’s installation in which paintings, reduced to pure form exist in the same space as sculptures that look like furniture.

The medium Trombly has chosen for herself also connects her to the feminist critique that painting is an inherently male activity, which is valued more highly than crafts, such as weaving that are associated with women’s work. However, few contemporary critiques take into account the pleasure an artist experiences while working, whether they are making a painting, sculpting materials, or weaving fabric. Trombly looms her fabric herself, a repetitious action that demands time, skill, and her personal touch. As a meditative act it provides her with a release from her daily life when she can contemplate the rich history and mythology that the medium evokes, from Homer’s recitation of the actions taken by Odysseus’s wife Penelope to cunningly stall her eager suitors during her husband’s absence by weaving a shroud for her elderly father-in-law only to undo a day’s work at night (Trombly named her daughter Penelope) to spider’s who construct webs to trap their prey.

Although the objects Trombly creates can function as works in their own right, her installation encourage viewer’s to speculate on what separates an art experience from an everyday experience, especially when the environment and the objects they create look almost identical to objects and spaces viewers encounter in their daily lives. She uses her work to fabricate tableaux that suggest a narrative and create a context that shapes its meaning and experience. Most of these mise-en-scenes look like the remnants of a festive event where only the detritus remains, whether it’s the balloons, streamers and confetti left over from a festive occasion, or the mops, pales, and tarpaulins used in the aftermath of a disaster. Viewers traipse through these installations like party crashers or interlopers, sorting through the inventory of objects to piece together the events that previously transpired. In her installation for the Girls’ Club, Trombly minimized the narrative element. Although she created an arrangement that seems appropriate for a gallery space, it is not apparent whether the paintings are ready to be hung or have just been deinstalled. It might even take a moment, for viewers to comprehend that they are actually experiencing the exhibition itself.

The fact that there is no image woven into the fabric is essential to Trombly’s enterprise. She clearly recognized that the introduction of an image or even the use of colored threads would naturally become the focus of attention and thereby impede the viewer’s experience of the tableau. As the canvases are made in exactly the same fabric as the benches, viewers become astutely aware that it is their own expectations and tendency to categorize and assign value that determines which objects are the subjects and worthy of full attention and which get relegated to the margins.