Sewing for Ghosts
Gail Grinnell's Perfect Mess
courtesy of Suyama Space
Gail Grinnell's installation Ruffle is a translucent cut-paper universe of lightly tea-and-coffee-stained drawings of dress ruffles. The ruffles dangle from the ceiling and whirl in tunnels midair and cling to the rafters at Suyama Space. Among other things, it may call to mind: vaudeville, collars, spaghetti piles, camouflage netting, tornadoes, roses, peeled skin, veins, vines, entrails, hair, maps, worms, Celtic knots, glass noodles. Ruffle looks like a deconstructed wedding, one that did not go well. It has the ashy appearance of something obliterated, something after a disaster, just before it falls to dust.
Grinnell grew up in Hanford. She was born in 1950. Growing up in Hanford taught her to believe that she was going to be obliterated and fall to dust any minute. "I just thought we were going to die tomorrow," she said in a phone conversation last week. "It made for lots of really bad decisions in my life." She laughed. "I am so shocked at being old, I can't hardly believe it."
She came to Seattle in the 1970s, and she has been showing at Francine Seders Gallery and other prominent venues since the 1990s. She's been working with dress patterns for years. She inherited hundreds of the delicate things from her mother; in her studio, she mimics the work that her mother did. She doesn't sew herself. ("I'm terrible at it.") At first, she used the same pieces that touched her mother's hands—and her own body, since her mother would use the patterns to make her clothes; she vividly recalls "my mother's hand on my torso, as she measured fabric and the unique dimensions of my body"—but those would tear. She found a superfine spun polyester that looks the same. She coats it in a light layer of iridescent acrylic, makes her drawings on it with felt-tip marker, then cuts them out along their edges and hangs them in enormous clumps.
Ruffle is the largest series of clumps yet. The pieces are joined by pretty pearly-headed sewing pins, and they hang from the rafters by a system of strings. These particular drawings were based on one of those antique organza dresses that are so layered, they make you gasp (this dress was for a child, some unknown distant family member). Grinnell hung the "virtuoso piece of sewing" in her studio above her head. She photographed its curves from below and then made her drawings from those photographs. Cut out and hung up, they turn back into spiraling flurries.
"My family were transplanted farmers that moved over to Hanford, so they lived this funny life of doing their craft and building and making in the middle of this strange environment," she says. "They had come from a little town in Minnesota. They were part of the generation of the Depression, the dust bowl, World War II—their families really got shot out there trying to survive, and Hanford recruited people from all over the country for their top-secret nastiness. My dad responded to a flyer in the post office in the little town, and they moved out there, as did thousands of people in little towns. My mom had been a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. I have no doubt they would have stayed there if it wasn't for Hanford."
Her story, with its origins in American migration, created a world-traveling daughter. Ruffle's structure is based on the clerestory windows, spindly columns, and tunnels that look dimensional from certain angles and flat from others at the women's quarters in the Alhambra, which astonished Grinnell when she visited for the first time recently.
In among the storms of ruffles, you'll find bones. Tiny rib cages. Life-sized carpals and metacarpals and phalanges reaching out from the tornado. "I'm completely spooky about that," Grinnell says. She says she sees her work as—not quite literally, but almost—physically touching the memory of her mother. "I'm sure I'm communicating."
The medium is not unusual: Dangling cut-patterned universes long ago moved from elementary school art classrooms into popular galleries. They're easily banal. But not this one. Maybe it's the areas of clumping that seem wet and sticky and heavy up against segments that feel dry and dusty and historical. Or the overall sensation of meticulous construction coinciding with perfect mess. Ruffle is a sad piece of bliss.