Essay by Laura M. Richard, History of Art & Visual Culture, Santa Cruz, USA
Of Wool and Murals: The Art of Claudy Jongstra
Monumentally-scaled and minimally composed, yet intimate and warm in their conception and craft, Claudy Jongstra’s tapestries and textiles bring a quiet presence and humanity to the modern architecture they often inhabit.
The macroscopic compositions of Jongtra’s wall-sized organic abstractions suggest microscopic views of the plants and animals from which their materials are sourced. Here, large expanses of color are modulated by the texture and patterns of felted wool, raw silk, and plant fibers. Forms that appear suspended are in fact often swatches of contrasting chromatic fiber and texture, enmeshed but not fully metabolized into their background.
Jongstra’s materials give shape to not only to the work’s physicality, but equally, to its meaning. Furthermore, the way in which form and content are brought into being too carries a conceptual valence, one driven by ethics and conservation. Indeed, sustainability, respect, self-sufficiency, and cooperation are at the foundation of Jongstra’s studio community and the creation of each work. But hers is not just eco-activism or social practice interested in localization at the level of production and consumption. Rather, each step of her holistic collaborative process also recalls, revives, and preserves the history of the land where it is made; it is as much about place as people.
Fine Woven Bolts and Felted Woolen Swaths
Given the centrality of wool in Jongstra’s work, its sourcing is of particular importance. Indeed, all of her fiber comes from Drenthe Heath sheep, Europe’s oldest breed, a flock of which the artist keeps on her farm in Friesland in the northwest Netherlands. Fewer 1,200 of these animals remain, and because they are an essential part of the moorland ecosystem, maintaining them is a preservationist act, a valence that becomes inherent in the wool and carried conceptually into the works they manifest.
The procedural differences between making wool felt and other kinds of fabric add further material interest and theoretical complexity to Jongstra’s oeuvre. Cloth or fabric is woven or knit from spools or skeins of thread, itself the result of the binding individual animal or plant fibers such that they overlap and adhere lengthwise. The linear quality of thread means that it can be knit or woven into infinitely continuous sheets of cloth. It also echoes modern linear models of temporality and the endless efficiency of industrial fabrication. Conceptually then, cloth, especially that produced in mechanized mills, can be understood to represent notions of rationalization, progress, and productivity that began in the enlightenment and gained full throttle with late-capitalist globalization. And, indeed, practically, the linearity and efficiency of thread and weaving are reasons that cloth—rather than felt—became mass-produced during eighteenth-century and led to complex commercial, political, economic, cultural, and social exchanges between loci of raw materials, labor, and consumption.
While Jongstra makes no such overt connection to the Dutch textile industry’s long history, it remains implicit in its intentional artisanal response to mass production. In contrast to cloth, felt is created by placing layers of animal hairs at ninety-degrees to each other and immersing them in warm water. The liquid causes the miniscule scales on the fibers from sheep, alpaca, rabbits and yaks, to expand and, when agitated and compressed, the fibers hook together at various points and hold fast, forming a single piece of fabric.
The messier, massier, allover property and finite finished size of felt—and its continued importance in nomadic cultures—stands in distinction to the linear, industrial production of fabric. What’s more, Jongstra’s felt is not smooth and uniform like fedora hats and billiard tables. Rather, it is often composed of many different kinds of fibers that vary in length, color, and texture. These productive inconsistencies are further accentuated by the ways in which the artist accumulates the wool, which in some places and cases appears to be shearling. By visually echoing, then, the animal from which it came, these forms reinforce their importance and the interdependence between humans and livestock.
The historical and conceptual threads of land, exchange, symbiosis, and commerce are suggested not only by the fibers but by the pigments that impregnate them. Jongstra’s studio farm also has botanical garden which is part of a project with a local association for regional preservation and produces many of the plants for the unique dyes that go on to color the wool from the sheep that graze nearby. Here, the likes of delphinium, red clover, and dandelion are grown, dried, ground, and transformed according to age-old recipes.
Jongstra also draws on other historically important species from the Netherlands that do not thrive in Friesland’s particular terroir. For example, the madder root (rubia tentorium) seen throughout her textiles, has long been prized for its red color. Called “kraplack” in Dutch, it is the most permanent form of natural maroon and its use can be traced back to the ancient civilizations of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. After arriving in Italy via the Crusaders around the thirteenth-century, madder made its way to Zeeland, the northwest province of the Netherlands. In the fifteenth century, madder was key in coloring leather and in the surging textile industry of the Dutch Republic, and by the end of the seventeenth-century, its trade was an important economic tie with England. Indeed, in 1700, the British Military was the biggest importer of madder, using this quintessentially Dutch pigment to color its national uniforms.
Madder has also figured prominently in Holland’s history and commerce of art. The intense vermillion of “madder lake,” as the pigment form is called, is derived from a lengthy process of drying and crushing the root into a powder, which is then fermented for one to two years. Once ready, it is then mixed with clay or alum to create the coveted red paint that remains bright even centuries later. Its bright crimsons were especially prized in the Golden Age of painting, where it appears throughout Rembrandt, and in the plumage of Vermeer’s Girl with a Red Hat (c. 1665–67) and around the mouth of Girl with the Pearl Earring (c. 1665). We can say then, that by virtue of the connection to Holland’s rich past and its commitment to local and historically significant flora and fauna that Jongstra’s works are literally and physically dyed-in-the-wool Dutch. Her site-specific, conceptual tapestry maps are rooted sui generis in the Netherlands.
Where other artists deal with complex histories of exchange by way of overt narrative, they are more abstractly manifest in Jongstra’s work. For example, Yinka Shonibare’s Scramble for Africa (2003), boldly calls out the problematics of proto-globalization by fashioning Victorian mannequins in the Dutch wax-printed Kente cloth favored by Africans, similar histories are instead whispered by the fibers and sources throughout Jongstra’s textiles.
The interdisciplinary and intermedial aspects of both Shonibare and Jongstra’s installations reinforce the interconnectedness of globalization and remind us that it is not just a recent economic phenomena. Like Shonibare, who deploys tropes of mass production and consumption—commercial cloth, fashion, and mannequins—to create sculpture, Jongstra too uses “low” techniques previously dismissed as craft to create high art with conceptual depth. By placing the “domestic” arts at the center of her practice, she contests their marginalized and feminized status. Furthermore, the technique of felting is itself marginal within the fabric arts, and its continued use by nomadic cultures echoes this peripherality. Furthermore, because the thick absorptive textiles are extremely effective in improving the acoustics in contemporary architecture, Jongstra’s works are important bridges between functional and non-functional art.
These many intersections and paradoxes between gender and genre are amplified by their size and location. Though they share a monumental scale, Jongstra’s textiles are decidedly undidactic like the masculine murals of Los Tres Grandes— José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueros.
But also like them, her work is often sited in public places, that are both transitional spaces and destinations to see art. Just as Diego Rivera’s murals in the stairwells at the National Palace in Mexico City were produced by a team of artists, so too are Jongstra’s works the culminating effort of many hands—and this collaborative labor is manifest in the visual aspect of the work too. For Rivera, the work’s production is echoed in the way it images the history of power and labor of the Mexican people. Absent any representational “pictures,” the idea of collectivity for Jongstra is again implicit in the material and the relations of its production. Perhaps then a more apt connection is with another generation of muralists, like Judy Baca, who saw the collaborative mural as a way bring communities together in a substantial, lasting way. In this way, Baca’s projects don’t just superficially represent ideas of the community, they are social practices that reflect, build, and reinforce the social fabric of those groups and relations.
And not only can the collaborative and preservationist impulse of Jongstra’s farm and studio be seen as akin as the muralists’ call to community and communal production, emphasis on ethical values, mutual constitution, and the chain of creation, suggest that Jongstra’s is a form of Social Practice. Like many artists working in this mode, there is little division between personal values and artistic production. Indeed, not only her work but her life is, “inspired by stewardship, the promotion of bio-diversity and the preservation of a natural and cultural heritage.” To whit, in her process, nothing is wasted. Rather than discard the inferior fiber, she instead cards them with raw silk and merino wool. With titles like Healing Forces and Waste Control, these works materially and procedurally reveal and unite soil, flora, fauna, and humans. In reconnecting us to the land in these distracted times, she reminds us that, at base, all culture is created from nature and that our future is inextricably linked to it. By bringing traditionally dismissed genres and spaces, and artisanal and historical modes of creation into presence and focus, Jongstra’s work claims a place for the marginal, the natural, the communal. The reach and efficacy of this vision is extended when the textiles are installed in not just civic, but politically-engaged public places, like the United Nations.
Not cut from bolt or by the yard, nor taughtly drawn over stretcher bars, Jongstra’s textiles are discrete pieces that stand-alone, to hang in front of, rather than on the wall. Their sculptural independence and organic origins means they are in direct symbiotic dialogue with their environment, expanding and contracting with variable humidity, swaying among the drafts and passersby, and absorbing ambient sounds and smells. The abstraction of Jongstra’s compositions allow these truths and histories to breathe, the edges and broad monochrome expanses expose their material nature and, like Robert Morris’s post-minimalist felt works, reveal and revel in the process of their making. In this way, sensorial and atmospheric specificities of its new site—of the “now”—are continuously imbricated into the history implicated in the wool and pigment. In this visceral presence, the convergence of past and present—of deep time—is nothing but felt.