Q + A with artist Beth Stuart

Jun 6, 2019

Throughout June 2019, Beth Stuart’s new mural, Reube (V. Stepanova and M. Vionnet, will be painted on the Dundas Street bridge where it crosses the Don River. The mural features a dense pattern motif in a palette of pinks and greens, using historical patterns from Stuart’s research into the role of women clothing designers in the emergence of modernism and the modern city. Don River Valley Park Art Program curator Kari Cwynar spoke to Stuart about the modernist histories she recalls in her project and their relationship to Toronto and the Don Valley.

Kari Cwynar: We’re here to talk about your upcoming mural project, Reube (V. Stepanova and M. Vionnet), which is now in production. My first question is about the title. Can you introduce the two women behind the patterns that appear in the mural, Varvara Stepanova and Madeleine Vionnet?

Beth Stuart: Sure. Varvara Stepanova [1894-1958] was a Constructivist textile designer. She was most famous for creating geometric surface designs and for her sports costume designs, which were meant for the ideal Soviet, socialist citizen—sort of post gendered, for every person or the ideal human. These costumes were really these flattened geometries, but when you imagine them made out of soft cloth, the structure starts to fall apart. I've been looking at her and looking at that kind of ideology that falls apart a little bit in the face of pragmatic realities.

LEFT: Designs by Stepanova in LEF magazine, 1923; RIGHT: Stepanova poses in sports clothes of her own design, 1923. From: theconversation.com

Contemporaneous to Stepanova in France, Madeleine Vionnet [1876-1975] was an agitator for the eradication of the corset and for women's suffrage in general. She was a clothing designer and she is most famous for inventing the bias cut, which is a way of cutting fabric on the diagonal so that it stretches. She was designing at a time when women needed to move differently in cities, to participate in the labour force in new ways. There was this massive change happening in terms of the way women needed to engage with their bodies in the world. And one of the ways that was happening was with garments. There are lots of parallel art movements, but clothing has been one of the few spaces where women in the west were permitted a full range of creative exploration in design but also in terms of self-expression in general.

Vionnet ended up making a very famous couture house. So, much like  Stepanova, you have the pragmatist ideology behind her initial project failing in a certain way because she ended up making clothes for the super-rich, and then quitting that partially because her pragmatic spirit didn't love it.

LEFT: Vionnet bias cut crepe dress photographed by Irving Penn, 1974; RIGHT: Vionnet crepe gown over crepe dress photographed by George Hoyningen-Huene, 1934. From: heroine.com

KC: This project isn't the first time that Stepanova has appeared in or influenced your work. Can you speak about how this project builds from your broader research and art practice?

BS: I have these origins as somebody who makes paintings and in my work, I’m still tackling many typical painting questions—for example, a relationship to pictures and to the figure-ground. I came across Stepanova when I was considering ways in which I could fit into abstraction. I wanted to make abstract paintings, but I didn't necessarily identify with the stories around abstraction that I understood from my formal education. I was rooting around for people who were thinking about other ways of dealing with abstraction and that's how I fell into a research practice. Stepanova’s a biographical character that I took up because, with her geometric sports costume designs, she had literally mapped abstraction onto the human body and into social space.

KC: Looking more closely at the actual patterns—Varvara Stepanova’s circle patterns and Vionnet’s garment patterns—how did you come to map these two patterns together in the mural design?

BS: I'm working with two different patterns, which can be kind of confusing because they are patterns in different senses. Stepanova’s is a surface design pattern. It's a repeated motif of circles intersected with lines. And Vionnet’s is a cut pattern for a garment – so it’s the pattern that you would use to cut the forms for a dress. One of the most interesting things about Vionnet’s garment patterns is that she had this sort of wild mind that could bend geometry to suit something as organic as the human form. She had an almost wizard-like ability to transform a vision of the two-dimensional into a functional three-dimensional thing. The cut patterns have this geometry, but they also feel almost like creatures, like strange and interesting organic forms, the purpose and function of which you're never quite sure.

So, for the mural, I took the Stepanova circle pattern, which is very rigidly geometric, and superimposed one of Vionnet’s garment patterns. I chose the Vionnet pattern because of its relationship to the form of the bridge. When I first saw the bridge, with its three concrete arches, I thought about it kind of like a pair of three legged pants. And I picked this particular Vionnet pattern because it fell around the architecture in a really nice way. It also has this mix of pragmatism and something that's a little bit more expressive, as far as form is concerned.

Under the Dundas Street bridge.

KC: I think this a good moment to segue to the bridge, because the site has such an impact on this mural. The Victorian-era Dundas Street bridge was built in 1911, as Toronto was coming into being as a modern city, and around the same time that Vionnet and Stepanova were working in France and Russia, respectively. What role did the bridge play in the development of your project?

BS: The site is a strange one because you have a very, very imposing architecture—the Dundas Street bridge—but it’s right up against the Don River so as a viewer, you’re jammed between it and the river. I liked the idea of transposing this quite detailed pattern onto it. A pattern that would appear differently if you were able to zoom out. It has this unusual figure-ground relationship. When you're close to it, you're probably not going to be able to discern the pattern, but then there are these tall pillars on either end which will allow you to have a long view. You can go between it being a whole object in and of itself and something that feels a little bit more immersive in the world around it.

We have this strange idea that architecture in a modern city is outside of its surroundings, and I wanted to highlight the absurdity of that situation. But the other thing—related to my interest in this particular time period a hundred years ago and my interest in these particular characters their ideologies—is that I feel that we, especially in North American cities, aren't as conscious as we could be of how much our social patterns and our movements through cities are borne of that particular time.

I’m thinking about the nonconforming aspects of cities and ways of being, and even thinking about aspects like single family homes: these narrow little boxes that we are supposed to live inside—in our particular city, in Toronto, we have very Protestant ideas around morality. We don't consider how much these things still influence our day-to-day patterns and ways of moving. For me, the Don is a really interesting site because it confronts that. It’s sort of wild around the edges and it's one of the only spaces in the city where the rough edges are visible and where gentrification is not able to take it over wholeheartedly. Partially because of the remnants of the industrial origins of that site or the human-use of that site are still so dominant. It strikes me as a pretty interesting place to have a human body and to have these monolithic architectures.

Beth Stuart: Length, Breadth, Thickness and – Duration. The Power Plant, Toronto, 2018.

KC: Thinking about how Vionnet’s bias-cut garments changed how women could move through the city, there is unexpected resonance with the Don, with the failures in the way that the Don Valley was organized a hundred years ago and how that still impacts how we move through the area. I’m thinking about—as I’ve heard you discuss before—clothing as a kind of surface or structure in the same way as architecture, landscape architecture or urban infrastructure, and how these things are or are not designed for the body, and particularly the gendered body.

BS: The mural is going to feel free in that landscape. It's going to feel ornate and rich and a bit intense. It’s playful and humorous. None of those things are part of the way that we think capital “M” Modernism or abstraction.

KC: Right. Nor are they characteristics that are often allowed in the planning of public space.

BS: No. Especially not in its retrofitting. There's something about that—this would be a very different project if this was in an underpass or on the side of a building, in a site that was framed or contained. It’s a different scenario to do something like that where it’s a kind of picture. I'm very intentionally playing with the mural being on this improbable site. So much so that you become aware of the bridge as an object, and your scale in relation to it. The bridge as part of the world that you are also a part of, and so the bridge in some ways becomes like a body.

KC: We don't really think or talk about these things when we talk about urban development and Toronto’s architectural histories.

BS: I always have this issue—and you can quote me verbatim on this—where people get lost in talking about the ideas behind my work and I have to keep pointing back to the experience of looking at the work itself. Your physical relationship to scale, to pattern, to colour, in a funny way and in a pleasurable way. This should be first and foremost: bringing you back to your body and to this relationship with the thing, the mural and the bridge, that you see in front of you.