by Alfred MacAdam
I long and seek after
TILTON GALLERY | JANUARY 18 – MARCH 10, 2018
In a lost play by Sophocles mentioned by Aristotle in the Poetics, the princess Philomela, having been raped and maimed, can only express the horror of what has happened by weaving a tapestry. Silent and silenced, she resorts to “the voice of the shuttle” to denounce the crime committed against her and to demand justice. The paradox of silent speech (“the voice of the shuttle”) reminds us that the etymological source of text is the Latin verb texere, to weave. So weaving, like writing, is another silent mode of composition and expression.
All twenty-two of Martha Tuttle’s constructions are made of wool, silk, and pigment and speak to us in subdued tones—shades of indigo, black, and white. They take us back through time into the primordial world of women who made thread from wool or silk and then wove it into cloth. Unlike Philomela's denunciatory tapestry, cloth traditionally became clothing. It is precisely at the intersection of practical craft and artistic expression that Martha Tuttle’s work finds its inception. So metamorphosis is her game, while wool and silk are her means of production. And that quite literally: she frequents wool fairs to acquire raw material which she then transforms on a spinning wheel into thread, which, in turn, metamorphoses into fabric.
It’s inevitable that we’d link Tuttle's practice to classical culture. Consider: Penelope weaving a burial shroud—the ultimate utilitarian garment—for her father-in-law, or, poor Arachne, transformed by Athena into a spider for being a superior weaver. Tuttle acknowledges this link to antiquity in her title, which, as she says in the artist's statement she composed for the Tilton Gallery, “is taken from a Sappho poem translated by Ann Carson.” Her reaction to Sappho provides insight into her own work: “Sappho's fragments . . . engage with longing as its own kind of intimacy or psychic closeness, especially in terms of that which is incapable of ever being possessed.”
Here we have the artistic dilemma exquisitely delineated: the solitary labor, the quest for a probably unattainable ideal, and the realization that it is only the quest that really matters—that the work can be only a reminder of the quest. For the viewer, Tuttle’s constructions—call them paintings or collages or structures—constitute non-reflecting mirrors that enable us to use texture and geometry as meditative points of departure. The ten smaller works, Sierra Negra (1) (2018), 12 × 10 inches for instance, are like domestic icons, religious images we pass in our everyday life often perhaps without noticing them but which remind us that beyond the quotidian we have another life. Placed on stretchers, we might take them for paintings until we realize we are able to see through the diaphanous silk or notice the pebbles Tuttle leaves on top of the stretcher, rather like the stones left on a tombstone to commemorate a visit or, in this case, to remind us of that impossible possession she finds in Sappho.
Tuttle’s larger works, which hang like tapestries—Shelter (2018), 53 × 52 1/2 inches, is a superb case in point—move beyond the personal icon into the sphere of landscape, the creation of a universe within the work of art. Here we sense the dialectic of empty space and Twomblyesque graffiti as the pigment seems to float out of a source like some ephemeral mist that leaves an indelible mark on whatever it touches. This is Tuttle in a major key, not only expressing control over materials but allowing her passions to stain the Mallarméan white page, transforming a meaningless void into her own personal universe.
ALFRED MACADAM is professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He has translated works by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, José Donoso, and Jorge Volpi among others. He recently published an essay on the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa included in The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography.