I seldom have the opportunity to observe while someone else finalizes an exhibition. So it was a rare and lovely chance for me to be present as Jill Trappler put the finishing touches to her exhibition Notions of Being/Moments of Being at the Irma Stern Museum. On a sunny morning in December, I sat in the museum gallery and waited for the stories her work had to tell me.
The breeze from the windows gently lifted the works on paper away from the wall and played with the sculptural pieces mounted in the centre of the room. The movement transformed the images of clothes into the garments they depicted, as though worn by an invisible fashionista. As the artist adjusted one of the paper sculptures, I half expected her to take some pins from her mouth to improve the ‘fit’. She looked more dressmaker than painter; her necklaces resembling a tape measure slung around her neck.
On one level, there is a simplicity about the exhibition: most of the works (on paper or mixed media sculptures) depict clothes or fabric. Some are real garments worn by Trappler, by her family, by friends; others she remembers from shop windows, from dreams, from her travels. Trappler writes that she is ‘interested in the way they “talk” to each other’[i]. In fact, this is an exhibition that actively encourages dialogue – and therein lies its complexity. The works speak to each other, but they also invite us to become participants in a many-layered conversation about identity and memory.
Walking through the gallery, I found myself mentally trying on the clothes in the paintings. As I did, I cast myself in a series of roles. I became a confident woman standing hip-cocked in an orange-striped summer dress; I dazzled in a robe of gold and red; I was a dervish whirling, arms outstretched. The process reminded me of something I had forgotten, but that every child who plays dress up knows: when we try on clothes, we’re really trying on identities. And when we dress ourselves, we are, knowingly or unwittingly, choosing signals to send about our personalities, our professions, our history.
With this understanding, each work in the exhibition became an exercise in decoding a pattern, interpreting the cut and shape of each piece and translating it into an identity. Who am I if I wear this? Who might have worn it before? What does it have to say? As I looked, my imagination wrapped the dress, coat, shirt or piece of fabric ‘around’ a story or memory. Some of the stories I knew from the artist. For example, she recalled a flowered, strapless dress her mother wore at a party. I’ve never met Trappler’s mother, but looking at the painting I see her clearly, dancing on the terrace. A pleated skirt printed with fruit was worn by a visiting French artist. His story comes vividly to mind, walking through a township wearing the gaudy skirt and high heels. Other stories I invented for myself. One high-necked white and gold ensemble was obviously worn by a Russian aristocrat on her way to a wintry assignation; a pink skirt is made for my sister, who loves vintage clothes and rummaging in dressing up boxes.
A similar process of identification and interpretation can be seen in the film that accompanies the exhibition. In it Alexandra Learmont, a friend of the artist’s, tries on some of the sculptural pieces, imbuing them with her own personality. The film shows her with Jill Trappler, the two women literally shaping the pieces to fit. Fitting them to Alexandra’s body, but more – to her flair for drama, her personal associations with the pieces, her story.
The film underscores the physicality of the pieces. Though not designed (strictly speaking) to be worn, they are like clothes in the specific ways they appeal to our senses through cut, colour and texture. Just as if I were in a clothes shop, my fingers itched to touch the works, to understand their texture through my skin. Thinking about this awareness, it occurred to me that clothes and the language of dressmaking are very useful metaphors for analysing identity. We speak of the ‘fabric of our being’, we refer to people being ‘cut from the same cloth’, we hear Ethne Owens about ‘patterns’ of genes being responsible for our appearance and personality. Cleverly, lightly, Trappler uses a visual language whose metaphors we are familiar with to draw us into the meaning-making process.
In a preface to the exhibition catalogue, Trappler offers that ‘[t]hese pieces, all made on the same format, are like postcards or pattern covers.’ The idea of a pattern cover sticks in my mind. I remember tissue thin Simplicity patterns my mother kept in a drawer and muslin toiles I have seen in dressmakers’ studios: not actual, finished garments, but embryonic versions of them. Of course, the works in the Notions of Being series are complete in their own right – but in likening them to pattern covers, the artist invites us to transform them, to fashion them to fit our own stories and memories.
The paintings in the exhibition, referred to as Moments of Being, underscore Trappler’s invitation to be part of the transformation process. If Notions of Being are pattern covers, Moments of Being are the cloth, the raw material of life. In conversation, the artist explained that all of the paintings’ titles are taken from life, from moments where our senses take over. Jingle Jangle Junction is a place where people come together and interact; Dawn Hummed In vibrates with the sounds of a summer morning; The Sweetness of this Juice reflects Trappler’s love of paint and her pure joy in its texture.
These life-affirming paintings represent to me the generosity of the artist who creates a piece and then offers it to me to interpret. Immersed in their dense colour, my eyes search for motifs and meaning. For Jill Trappler, they are moments of being; for me, they are moments of possibility. I can use my imagination to shape the cloth in infinite ways.
So far from being simple, the exhibition challenged me – more than any I have seen recently – to wrestle with one of the core mysteries of art. W. B. Yeats said it more eloquently than I can: How can we know the dancer from the dance[ii]? How can we separate what is represented from its representation? Are the Notions of Being garments or memories of garments? Are they finished pieces or patterns? They are all of these things – and this is the joy of the exhibition. The works were transformed once by the artist when she turned memories, impressions and dreams into tangible objects. They are transformed again when we interact with them.
Haute couture is defined as exclusive clothing, made from the highest quality materials with extreme attention to detail and finish. Most importantly, each piece is made to order and to the exact specifications of the wearer. In this exhibition, Jill Trappler has taken fabric (Fabriano paper for the most part, with its lovely textured surface) and fashioned a uniquely inclusive collection, one whose pieces change to fit every wearer.
Eithne Owens, January 2010
2013 JHB Art fair, Artforme (Cape Town), Gallery 2 (JHB)