John Wood and Paul Harrison, installation view from ‘I DIDN’T KNOW I DIDN’T KNOW IT’, Contemporary Art Gallery, February 12 – April 24, 2016. Photography by SITE Photography

Brent Wadden Pulls the Wool over Our Eyes and Calls it Paint

Brent Wadden, 'Score 1 (Salt Spring)' (detail), 2018. Photography by Michael Love

Brent Wadden’s work is often met with confusion when it’s described as painting. The Nova Scotian artist’s loom-woven works are sewn, threaded and mounted onto a frame, looking more like a multi-coloured canvas than a painted surface. In much of the writing on Wadden’s work, the use of painterly terminology is common and expected by those who are familiar with his practice. But for the average viewer who thinks they are looking at a piece of textile art, the vocabulary may leave them puzzled. Aside from Wadden himself identifying his practice as a painterly one, University of British Columbia Art History professor, T’ai Smith explains that his work also follows a painterly lineage dating back to American abstract painting in the 1960s.

Wadden began his artistic practice as a painter, and it wasn’t until he moved to Berlin in his mid-20s that he learned how to weave from his friend and fellow artist, Travis Meinolf. While he isn’t sure who initially defined his work as painting, Wadden liked the association enough to incorporate it into how he talks about his work. “Explaining [the weavings] as paintings makes sense to me. It’s more dealing with the history of painting, less the history of weaving and textile art. I’m an untrained weaver; someone who is traditionally trained would do things a lot differently.” (Brent Wadden; David Balzer, “Brent Wadden: A Painter Who Weaves,” Canadian Art. October 3, 2016.) Wadden’s self-identification as a novice weaver references the historical flux of weavers using a loom or explicitly moving off the apparatus to “re-ground [weaving] in the artist’s own hands” during the 1960s (Smith, Architectonic: Thought on a Loom, 2011; 271). Back then, weavers ‘liberated’ the practice in order to “move beyond craft,” however Wadden’s work demonstrates the contemporary return towards craft-based practices, including loom and hand weaving. The “off the loom” notion has come full circle; working back on a loom within the “unprofessional” limitations of his inexperience as a weaver.

Unlike much of textile art or craft, which hang loose on all sides or have only a top mount or beam, Wadden’s works are stretched and mounted on a frame in the same way as a painter’s canvas. The rectilinear edges, having been stretched around a fixed rectangular frame, are how Wadden’s textiles may be most confidently categorized as painterly work, and in doing so, “an otherwise flexible, malleable network has settled into a distinctly defined entity.” (T’ai Smith, About Time p10) By Smith’s analysis it is not so much the pictorial or abstracted content of the work, nor the linear, grid-like qualities that would potentially link Wadden’s work to painting, but the exterior frame itself that justifies this otherwise oppositional classification. Each woven thread refers to the variedly sourced yarns Wadden uses, bought from thrift stores to auctions, eBay to bulk distributors. As Smith states, the tension in Wadden’s work goes beyond a physical one, they “stretch and pull on opposing forces – at once material and conceptual, perceptual and logical.”

The texture of yarns vary in size, diameter and consistency in a way that’s only truly noticeable when standing up close to one of Wadden’s works. The further away the viewer steps, the more blurred and cohesive the threads appear, forming soft blocks of geometric colour. The structure of the work – threads woven into tight repetitious knots – is altered by our perception to it, depending on where you stand. Here the similarity to the optical ambiguity of Impressionistic painting is more obvious. Stand close, and you see a network of fibers of varying shades, tightness and consistency; move away, and the works appear as if cut and pasted into crude geometric forms. Even photographs of Wadden’s work reveal a gradient nature, more like the staggered variance in an inkjet printer’s test sheet than the tight, differentiated knots of a woven tapestry.

Although most of his work is large in scale, and the works at CAG even larger than usual, their tactility necessitates a closer look. The handmade quality, along with the varying tonality and consistency of the threads inspires an appreciation for his work as not only monumental in size, but minuscule in detail. While his work straddles the categorical distinctions between weaving and painting, the optically shifting perspective reinforces the conceptual flexibility of a thread that acts like a stroke of paint. As a brush moves across canvas, the interwoven tendrils form a malleable structure that makes our fingers itch to touch its surface, in as much as we want to step back and appreciate the sheer scale of Wadden’s unconventional paintings.

By Whitney Brennan, Curatorial Intern