“. . . layering the fabric through machine embroidery and hand-stitching, layers so thick it breaks the needle.”
Sydney-based artist Julia Gutman revels in contradiction for her larger-than-life textile artworks. They are soft works in materiality, yet as Gutman “stabs” the textiles with her large needle, she enjoys the metaphorical “harshness” that rejects traditional polite and feminine embroidery notions. In her exhibition Muses at Sullivan+Strumpf in Sydney (28 July – 13 August 2022), Gutman turns on the male gaze in art history, reclaiming female bodies as she casts her friends posing in the studio, utilising clothing worn and donated by friends and family.
The process unfolds as she follows an intuitive process of layering the fabric through machine embroidery and hand-stitching, layers so thick it breaks the needle. Gutman invites us into the studio to tell us more.
Can you tell me about your studio? Where is it located, and do you have highly coveted light and space?
My studio is in a little corner store in Lewisham. I feel lucky to work there; it’s full of character, with a sweet old awning and wooden floorboards littered with threads and scraps. I have shelves of clothes and sheets sorted by colour and a velvet green couch that has been claimed by my springer spaniel, Tabitha. The hum of my sewing machine is constant. The morning light is soft and glowy, and I’ve rigged up some garage lights so I can work there at night.
Does your art process work well there? What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?
I started making this body of work in my bedroom during lockdown 2020 before expanding to a small studio in the Waverley council building. I moved to the Lewisham space about a year ago, where I now really have space to work at scale. I share the studio with another artist, so we bounce ideas off one another a lot.
I usually have several works going at once, from big, finalised tapestries that need to be hand-sewn together, to early sketches of works to come. I try and bounce between these different stages each day to keep my eyes and ideas fresh. I’m not great at planning or anticipating what I’ll produce in advance. I figure if I just show up every weekday and work, I’ll get where I need to. I’m much more practice-driven than goal-oriented. Some days I’ll just embroider a little, and other times are more prolific — all you can do is show up and do the work and hope for the best. After several years of balancing a full-time job alongside my practice, it honestly feels like such a privilege to get to focus on my work.
I’m curious to hear about the shift from painting to textile art. When did you start exploring this medium?
I studied painting in my undergrad but applied to the sculpture department for my MFA before having ever produced something three-dimensional. I really wanted to push my own perception of practice, expand my technical capacities, and learn through the act of making. During my studies, I worked mostly with soft sculpture, making sort of gloopy abstracted forms using found gloves, shoes, and vintage dresses. The material choices were really specific, and I was interested in ways of manipulating found objects with converging material histories to tell a particular story.
A couple of years later, I realised that despite developing this very sculptural abstracted textile process, most of my favourite works were still figurative paintings. I had fallen in love with materiality, but I still had this pull to engage in the surface/ illusion of painting, to represent characters, to tell stories. I love the accessibility of figuration and the way that personal narratives have the capacity to touch others, to tap into universal themes: family, friendship, love, and loss.
In 2020 I bought a sewing machine and made a quilt for my friend’s first child. I sort of had this “a-ha” moment where I realised I could merge both aspects of my practice in a singular process. The process I have created lets me draw on the material histories of the clothing used while still creating something figurative, illusionistic, and narrative-based.
How does your process feed into your artworks? In your exhibition at Sullivan+Strumpf, you have used clothes worn and donated by friends and family. The stitching “is as tender as it is aggressive.” I’d love to hear more about this approach.
I’m not a seamstress — I think most craftspeople would have a conniption looking at the backs of my work. I approach them more like paintings. I sketch constantly, using art-historical references mixed with my lived experience, with my friends posing in the studio when I can convince them to, coming up with compositions that are as layered as the materials I use to express them. The works start with a big line drawing on calico, where I map out the image and give myself a crude sense of what I’m making. From then onwards, it’s an intuitive process of layering found fabric, rigorous machine embroidery and hand-stitching. It’s a fluid and organic way of working. I usually have no idea where a work is heading, so a big part of it is trusting the process.
The work I make is labour intensive, but it isn’t precious. The edges are rough, the seams are wonky, and the image is frayed all over. I like taking my time, but I think there is something a little punk about them too. Sewing, at least the way that I do it, is at once incredibly tender and inarguably aggressive. I am bringing together disparate things, mending, but violently puncturing them in order to do so. Louise Bourgeois said that “the beauty of sewing is precisely in the fact that things can be done and undone without damaging the fabric . . . It is a prevention against things being separated.” A lovely sentiment by one of my art idols that my work negates – there is no pulling it apart. At a certain point, the image is so thick it breaks my needle, which is sometimes the only indicator that it’s done. I think that there is something kind of beautiful about that finality.
My interrogation of textiles is a sort of negotiation with femininity, tradition, and expectation. It’s this playful toeing the line. It’s like, “look, she’s sewing, how quaint,” but I use a giant fuck-off needle and have puncture wounds all over my skin. I’m leaning on this misguided perception that embroidery is a frivolous medium for good ladies, which is just misogyny because, historically, embroidery has created so much space for political and interpersonal subversion.
In terms of materiality, the specificity of the fabric I use informs the stories I tell. Trace is something I think about a lot. Worn clothing holds a confluence of narratives. Not only do the styles speak to a historical moment, but also the network of global industrial labour. Every garment is made by an invisible somebody, often in substandard conditions, and most likely travels the world before being offered to a consumer. When I interact with a donated garment, I’m thinking about the person who gave it to me, our relationship, times I remember it being worn, memories they have shared, but also lurking is the invisible history of that item before it came to them. The hands that sewed together the seams I’m ripping apart.
When did you first come up with the idea of muses?
I often visit an exhibition of an iconic dead white male artist and feel a sort of internal conflict. Taking the recent Matisse show at the AGNSW, for example, you look at an odalisque and think, “how stunning is this painting’ and ‘how problematic is this representation’ and ‘who is she, beyond a fetishised other.” Looking at the history of figurative painting is largely a deep dive into the male gaze. So how can we approach figuration in a way that gives agency to the sitter? How can we empower them as subjects rather than objects?
The concept of the muse interests me. She’s this “all-powerful” inspirational figure, almost always rendered passive. I think those power dynamics are fascinating. Even thinking about the origin of the term – the mythological muses, they were these total badasses. They collected the limbs of dismembered Orpheus and buried them at the foot of Mount Olympus. They taught Aristaeus the arts of healing and prophecy and the Sphinx the riddle, which Oedipus eventually answered. The Muses stabled Pegasus, who made the spring of Hippocrene for them by striking the earth with his hoof. So why have they become the symbol of passive female inspiration for male genius?
In this show, my “muses” are my best friends. Rather than passively objectified, I’ve tried to actively represent them. They contributed to the process and creation of the work. It’s a collective spirit, one based on the desire for community, tenderness, and friendship between women.
Julia Gutman is represented by Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.
In conversation with Emma-Kate Wilson, an art and design writer based on Gayemagal Country (Sydney).