“Of things as they happen to be” — Jeanette Johns
by Didier Morelli
Jeanette Johns walks us over to the handloom in her studio at the Fonderie Darling, where for the past 15 months she has taught herself how to weave with the help of guidebooks, online tutorials, and local artisans. The horizontal wooden device sits adjacent to a large window, and we contemplate its arcane beauty under the sunrays in the sweltering summer heat as Johns explains her process in a short video produced by the contemporary art centre. The Montreal-based artist has applied her meticulous understanding of printmaking to pattern making with cloth and tapestry. “Of things as they happen to be,” her solo exhibition in the small gallery of the Fonderie Darling, displays the products of her research. Six woven pieces and one stamped ink- on-paper series of prints hang across the gallery’s white walls. Each work delicately balances the calculated art of interweaving threads with clear conceptual intent. The resulting pieces offer affecting explorations into the inner systems of architectural drawing, optical illusions, cartography, and science photography.
Focusing on the underlying landscapes of the perceivable world, the artist plays with our sensory limitations and blurs their edges to create different realities. Take, for example, the work Shadow Windows (2021), a diptych suspended at the back of the gallery, which the viewer sees from a distance immediately upon entering the space. Reproducing the shapes of the windows in Johns’s studio, woven black-and-white cotton threads generate the illusion of an opening onto the exterior. The artificial portal appears to move, coming alive as the audience navigates the space. Unlike the transparent windowpanes they geometrically mirror, these opaque surfaces depend upon precise pattern making to deliver optical depth, dynamism, and the similitude of multiple perspectives. The environment Johns engineers with her rhythmic configurations forms an arrangement that never settles and is always in transition, similar to the changing daylight cast upon the red brick wall across her studio.
Shadow Stairs (2021) and Shadow Stairs Reflected (2021), situated one across from the other in the gallery, return to notions of mirroring introduced in Shadow Windows. In Shadow Stairs, the staircase design is continuous, cascading from the top down and across the surface of the textile. This creates a seamless line of stacked steps moving from left to right, or is it right to left? The motifs evoke both unreal replications of an object and distortions of everyday structures by the obstruction of light. Johns uses a shadow-weaving technique, comprising alternating light- and dark-co- loured yarns, to trace out an interwoven blue and pink staircase. Slight variations on vertical and horizontal lines working along a repetitive grid-like pattern allow for the effect of staircases in motion to emerge. Like a game of snakes and ladders, Shadow Stairs Reflected
offers a much more complex and winding pattern. Multiple breaks in rhythm and smaller grouped sections of prints contrast with one another. Equally mesmerizing, it pulses to another, vaguely wonkier, beat. Mounted a few centimetres off the wall with delicate brass poles and an anchoring system, these textiles take on the architectural gravitas of tapestry harkening back to 15th- and 16th-century European weavings. Far from the pictorial traditions of medieval scenes, Johns instead adopts a more modernist lexicon, recalling a drawing by artist Anni Albers: Design for a Jacquard Weaving (1926). This juxtaposition of medieval and modernist aesthetics productively obscures the lines between arts and craft, figuration and abstraction, women’s work and artistic labour, as well as technical prowess and conceptual rigour. By blurring these lines, Johns challenges the malignment of textile art as an outdated métier, instead highlighting how working on a loom can be a thought-filled and embodied action.
All of the pieces on view continuously escape their flatness and reach out to the audience, refusing to only occupy their two-dimensional plane. Folded Curtain (2021) is a work of hand-woven cotton and linen that literally extends into the gallery with various brass brackets stretching it over three metres across the wall. In it, a black background with stacked thin white lines accordions its way horizontally, flowing in folds and flaps that echo the production rolls produced by the handloom. Unfurling itself, Folded Curtain re-enacts the gestural economy of hands dexterously aligning individual threads to complete a larger fabric. In doing so, it traces how textiles, historically categorized as a feminine form of labour and therefore excluded from “high art,” carry their own genealogy of rituals informed by the physical labour of those who make them. Johns reminds us of the organic, imperfect rituals that weavers embody to achieve harmony in design. Scratching below the material surface of her unified patterns, she breaks apart the flawless and dazzling exterior appearance of a traditional weaving technique to create an object constituted of personal, individualized references and stories. This contemplative proximity to patterning also finds itself in Linenfold for a Wall (2021), an over five-metre long screen-printed frieze on linen directly tacked to the wall. Citing the medieval relief-carving technique used to decorate wood panelling with a design that imitates folded linen, the artist plays with the veracity of her materials and traditions of trompe l’oeil in architecture.
The publication that accompanies the exhibition, with contributions by guest writer Emily Doucet and curator Milly-Alexandra Dery, is also an exquisite object that traces Johns’s process and practice through photographs, prints, and close-up images of her different samples, experimentations, and patterns. In all of its facets, “Of things as they happen to be” offers new horizons for Johns to expand on an already well-established curiosity around built environments, the functioning of perception, and the tactility of real and imagined spaces. Throughout, the artist deploys the appeal of aesthetic order and harmony of symmetry, only to create uncertainty in the infallibility of vision. This ever-expanding and stunning universe is a statement of “things as they happen to be,” of things as they appear to be, and of things as they could also become.