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Running with Wolves: Anna Torma’s Rhizomatic Wanderlust

Anna Torma, Party With Dionysus, 2011, embroidery on cotton, Museum of Contemporary Outsider Art Collection (Mansonville, Qc)

Anna Torma

Galerie Laroche/Joncas, Montreal

Galerie Robert Poulin, Montreal

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, February 2020

 “The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation. Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome is that it always has multiple entryways …"

-- Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [1]

“When a person embroiders, they work, exactly half of the time, in the blind, with the needle coming up from the underneath. This continual approximation of space is a training in haptics, space according to feel and without visible guidelines to follow. Embroidery goes through a surface—and comes back in order to make its mark. The unseen is necessary to the mark.”

-- Jill Magi, “Stitches in excess: Embroidery as model for social thought and art.” [2]

Anna Torma’s fearlessly stitched and radiant cartographies are anchored in her own lived experience but afford viewers a sense of universal truths. Her craft-based creative practice has a long history of incubation in the production of large-scale hands-on embroideries that are powerfully new and even radical in mien.

This Hungarian-Canadian fibre artist (b. 1952) is a born storyteller who draws upon a wide array of textile traditions and techniques, including appliqué, felting, photo transfer, collage, and quilting. She has come far from the rag dolls of her childhood in rural Hungary, scavenging imagery from diverse sources such as medical anatomical drawings, folk art, and even her own children's drawings. Whether working with fine silk, raw hemp, mercerized cotton, man made fabric or found needlework, Torma makes all those materials irremediably and recognizably her own.

Anna Torma, Snakes, 2013, embroidery on silk

I recently experienced a terrifically engaging Torma embroidery of a wolf pack on the prowl, with a coven of snakes all about entitled Snakes (2013, embroidery on silk, 42 x 51”). Their feral profiles, open jaws and suggested loping gaits left a powerful impression upon me. The dovetailing, the map-like unfurling of the narrative and the latent sense of menace, gave a whole new meaning to the European fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. It is as though she is channelling the ghost of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Torma, this woman who runs with wolves both literal and figural, has executed something of a masterwork here. 

If you were to arrest her stitching at any given single point, you would never achieve a clear sense of where she is heading. Until she has reached the threshold, that is, and then her logic seems pellucid and unassailable. Rigorously worked layers build towards a seamless whole where image and text speak in flux, unison and poetry. What seemed inchoate or disconnected upon first inspection suddenly finds resolution as the expansive cartography reaches its outward limit, and a visually indissoluble and pristine work is born.

Perhaps this is because drawing has always been integral to her embroidery work. Torma is a highly proficient draughtsperson and she delineates sundry entities, their circumstances and surrounds, with spirited industry. Employing densely layered fabrics, images and patterns, her work makes a strong statement about both materiality and the support. In evoking a wide array of references from folktales and anatomical drawings to children’s art and art brut, Torma touches on topical themes of alienation and anomie with a delicate, surreal, and often darkly inflected humorous touch. Stitch by stitch, she marks out the latitudes and longitudes of her world with abandon and resolve.

Anna Torma, Bestiary III, 2001, embroidery on cotton, La Peau de Ours Collection

Torma, based in Baie Verte, New Brunswick., immigrated to Canada in 1988 after earning a degree in textile art and design from the Hungarian University of Applied Arts in Budapest. She was introduced to textile art at a young age. Her mother and grandmother tutored her in sewing and embroidery. She casts in high relief there themes and issues of femininity, domesticity, and ethnicity.

Influenced by artists as diverse as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kiki Smith and her own partner, the sculptor István Zsakó, Torma’s visual language is raw, expressive and experimental. One might also call it elemental. She brings a maverick vision to works that have varying levels of accessibility and multiple entry-points. Stitching the wisdom and wherewithal of a life lived into her compositions, she offers her viewers an experience that can be profoundly moving. Her night thoughts and surreal juxtapositions yield a sense of the uncanny and unforeseen.

It is tempting and instructive to consider Torma’s work as inherently rhizomatic in its thinking as well as in its making and manifestation. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari employed the term "rhizome" and "rhizomatic" to describe a web of heterogenous multiplicities, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in an acentered and labyrinthine diaspora. 

Anna Torma, Vanitas #1, 2011, embroidery on silk

Kirsty Bell, in her essay “Reproduction as Genealogy in Anna Torma’s Textile Art”, says that “Contrary to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s conception of genealogies as linear or arborescent, Torma’s heterogeneous interpretation of them resists a tidy hierarchical structure.” [3]

However, in A Thousand Plateaus, where they oppose the rhizome to an arborescent (hierarchic, tree-like) conception of knowledge, Deleuze and Guattari further stress that a rhizome works with myriad planar and trans-species connections, while an arborescent model works with vertical and linear connections. [4] Hybridization, interconnectedness and heuristic layering are at the heart of what Torma achieves.

The rhizome is characterized by multiple connections between shifting semiotic chains, and its planar movement resists all overtures of linear chronology and organization, instead embracing a nomadic system of growth and propagation. Such a nomadic system perfectly modellizes Torma’s embroideries at all levels, for inside her webs of phenomenally smooth space, she offers a matrix in which every point is connected to every other point, so that each and every centimetre in one of the embroideries enjoys equal voice and status in a state of continual becoming, unfolding and progressive organic development rather than being mired in stasis, redundancy and blockage. The rhizome jettisons tidy notions of linearity in favour of multi-tiered trans-species connections. The rootstalk reigns supreme.

Anna Torma, Pedagological Charts I, 2016, embroidery on silk, 71'' x 53''

Furthermore, any given work by Torma has, like a rhizome, no clear beginning or end; it always operates “in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo." [5] The narratives are open-ended and never static. Her embroideries suggest a nomadic system of generative intensity and propagation on the go in the depths and at the farthest margins of their extravagant insides.

Torma’s works are profoundly acentered, diasporic and wholly detachable when understood as maps, animated by a restless circulation of interior signs. She constructs cartographies, not tracings. Deleuze labels the rhizome as an antigenealogical multiplicity in a perennial state of coalescent conjunction. [6] If Torma’s work pays homage, either implicitly or explicitly, to Deleuze it also borrows and works from other creators, including that of her own family members, most notably her aforementioned sculptor husband. However, it is through the use of such fabrics that the artist sacralises and radically updates women’s domestic work.

Torma’s artful scavenging invests her work with tiered associations and a host of affiliations and avenues that lead inwards in spiral-like configurations. Torma rejects tidy hierarchical structure. Hers are hand-stitched anti-genealogies that resist being “read” in a conventional linear manner. She encourages her viewers to assume various station-points in space and to adopt peripatetic reading practices.

Anna Torma, Metamorphosis I, 2008, embroidery on cotton

Jill Magi, a writer who also stitches, has dilated interestingly on embroidery as a model for subjectivity, and presents the “other” as a subject capable of elaboration. She considers Elizabeth Grosz’s brilliant thesis in Chaos, Territory, Art, a philosophy that links art and evolution and explores Deleuze’s ideas of “sensation”—that art is an intensification of sensation—and, crucially, it is art because it “can detach itself and gain autonomy from its creator and its perceiver . . .” (7). Here is where she links art to nature. “Art and nature, art in nature, share a common structure: that of excessive and useless production—production for its own sake, production for the sake of profusion and differentiation” (8).

As Magi argues, embroidery is an endeavour raised, sculptural, a kind of braille for the embodied eye. “As a mark-making system, embroidery is capable of lifting up off the surface—with each stitch, it does—and with certain stitches—such as the French knot.” [9] 

She maintains that the sculptural dimension of embroidery in piercing and looping is one of the more arresting angles that returns us to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion that what’s most interesting are not the adumbrations of pattern but the interstitial passages between the smooth and striated.

Torma, like Hannah Hoch before her, understands that embroidery occupies both smooth and striated space, and moves between them seamlessly and surreptitiously. As Magi says, it overlays smoothness onto striation but might generate striation: “Embroidery might generate word, image, narrative, and needs to adhere to the limitations of the ground weave, the substrate.” [10]

Anna Torma’s rhizomatic wanderlust and her uncanny familiarity with haptics has resulted in a cornucopia of arresting, interrogatory and even necessary works of art. WM 

Notes

1.  Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [University of Minnesota Press, 1987]: (pps. 7-13, translation by Brian Massumi).

2. Jill Magi, "Stitches in excess: Embroidery as model for social thought and art" in Jacket2 Magazine Feb. 23, 2015 (Philadelphis, PA)  (ISSN 2167-2326)

3. Kirsty Bell, “Reproduction as Genealogy in Anna Torma’s Textile Art”, E-rea 16.1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2018, consulté le 11 décembre 2019. URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/6883 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.6883 in E-rea

4.  Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari op. cit.

5. Ibid

6. Ibid

7. Jill Magi, “Stitches in excess: Embroidery as model for social thought and art” op. cit.

8. Magi, Ibid.

9. Magi, Ibid.

10. Magi, Ibid.

 

James D. Campbell


James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.
 

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