Guest post by Francis French
I never walked into a California shopping mall expecting to see groundbreaking textile art, but visitors to San Diego were recently shaken from shopping by Memories From A Blackout, a thought-provoking exhibition from Sheena Rae Dowling. Better known as a sculptor and painter whose work touches on universal themes, Dowling this time confronted her audience with something much more personal. Suspended in an empty store, white bedsheets were hung in space. Only when deliberately entering the rooms and walking amongst the sheets could small messages be seen. Stitched into the sheets were words; some were very legible, some needed some time to decipher as they seemed scrawled, like pleas for help.
'Creating this work was an intimate process,' Dowling explained. 'I deliberately allowed the viewer to see the process, and that's half the work. The stitching can be seen both from the front and back, and I tied and knotted the ends so that it hangs in shreds. I used hair, not thread. It's almost like it's still growing: an active, energetic, living process.'Dowling is undergoing her own recovery from addiction and alcoholism, explaining that she 'didn't want this to be a gimmick... A lot of people change how they look after a major life event,' she continues, 'and I chose to cut my hair last year. I considered it dead energy that I wanted to remove from my body. Holding it in my hand afterward, it is human - it is me - but there is something unnerving about dead hair compared to the rest of me. The rest of me is still alive.'
With this unnerving material, Dowling uses laundry lines and ladders to examine memory. 'I didn't want to use symbols in my work,' she explains, 'such as bottles. The evidence of my addiction is chemically in the hair, threaded into the work.' Her process is akin to many Indian textiles where the back of the work is as interesting as the front, showing an embroidery process rather than a flat, two-dimensional one. The stark words that Dowling uses in her work come from journals she kept while suffering from addiction. She often scrawled them in states that she later had no memory of. 'Hanging out dirty laundry in the form of bedsheets and airing it is very deliberate,' she explains. 'The words came from my sketchbooks, which are very intimate and private things. To expose these private truths in their original gritty form was very important... I had to be exposed like this to talk about it, because talking can create change.'
Why a shopping mall? The exhibition was a temporary one as part of an artist in residence program overseen by the San Diego Art Institute. Playing with this theme, Dowling positioned mannequins by the entrance, sculpted as artworks too. To walk from the banal lingerie shop next door and be confronted by them was a powerfully unnerving start to an exhibition that successfully negotiates a very difficult balance. It would have been easy to have been too confessional, too ego-driven, or too gimmicky. Instead, the space was used perfectly, and her use of materials told a story that only textiles could tell.