Extreme craft meets art

For her latest exhibition, Human Constellations, artist Kim Lieberman has immersed herself in the rarified world of lace-making, learning the technically demanding craft and making connections with local lace-makers.

Thread has been a constant in her work since 1999 and was sewn into previous works on postage-stamp paper. Lace-making is an “extreme craft”, which requires mathematical precision and an obsessive attention to detail. “The process of lace-making is very different from the end-product, which is usually pretty, delicate, beautiful and essentially decorative. The production process, however, is methodical and fairly rigid,” says Lieberman. An arcane and exacting discipline, the craft of lace-making is used as the “carrier” for her ruminations on the nature of the “web” that constitutes the human spirit or the ethereal realm in which this subtle energy moves.

Central to her latest work is a series of found objects, metal figures from which emanate elaborate lace “circles” depicting the invisible field beyond people. “The lace denotes the quality of the communication between people, or the thoughts and spiritual energy emanating from the being,” says Lieberman.

Her decision to learn how to make lace came from her desire to use the bronze figures — she suspects they were moulds for dolls — found in a scrap-metal yard. The technical challenge was to find a way to use thread independently. Using lace was her ingenious solution because, by its very description, it is “thread looped, twisted or braided to other threads independently from a backing fabric”.

The first step to becoming a lace-maker was to find a teacher. She got together with former computer programmer Janis Savage, whose home in Honeydew has become a nexus of lace-making activity in Gauteng. Savage had just discovered an almost unknown pattern called Chaotic Ground, with which she was keen to experiment. “It was regular but irregular — and no one could tell me how to do it,” says Savage. A few months before meeting Lieberman she found instructions for Chaotic Ground in a pattern book from Europe.

Some of the grids were so complex they had to consult a designer in England and manufactured the work with the aid of a computer programme. The strips of lace featured in the work The Incredible Chain of Connection start out small at the centre and expand to the outer edges. “The range of grid I wanted was so extreme it was unusual in the lace world and had not been explored before,” says Lieberman.

Intrigued by the history of the industry, the artist discovered that there is a revival of lace-making, not as a fashion item, but in architecture and the decorative arts. “It might be old-fashioned but it is becoming cutting-edge on the contemporary art scene. I am continuing with a tradition in which fine art and lace-making intersect.” She uses the examples of collars and cuffs depicted in the paintings of Dutch masters and English painting of the Elizabethan era.

According to Savage the Dutch and English painters employed apprentices with a working knowledge of lace-making to paint fashion items. “They were so accurately painted that you can recognise the type of lace. In the 17th and 18th centuries lace was worth more than the same weight in gold. It was the ultimate status symbol, produced by the peasant class for the nobility.”

It is thought that lace-making developed simultaneously in many cultures. Most significant developments happened in Belgium, which is known as “the cradle of lace”.

At its height in the 16th to 19th centuries, thousands of peasant children and young women were employed, sometimes for up to 16 hours a day, to produce lace for the nobility. Forced to work under appalling conditions in cellars and damp cottages, these workers were often not allowed to wear lace themselves.

Given its rich symbolism and its technical construction based on geometry and algebra, it comes as no surprise that Lieberman chose lace to express the unseen geometry of the universe. Not intending to imbue the lace with any intentional mystical meaning, the artist was astounded when applying precepts of gematria to this body of work.

Gematria is a system of numeric values given to letters of the Hebrew alphabet that Lieberman has used in previous works. In this case chance — or is it divine intervention? — dictated that the word “lace” in Hebrew is linked to the twin concepts of the title of the exhibition, Human Constellations.

According to the artist the Hebrew word for lace is tahara and its numerical value in Jewish traditional lore amounts to 613. The number is equivalent to the number of mitzvot, or commandments, prescribed for Jewish life. The root of the word is “connection”.

Lieberman had almost completed the entire body of work before investigating the Hebrew connotations of the word “lace”. The discovery of the profound mystical undertone reassures the artist that she is on the right track.

Human Constellations is on at Gallery AOP, 44 Stanley Avenue, Braamfontein Werf, Johannesburg, from October 19 to November 8. Tel: 011 726 2234.

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