Cecilia Charlton trained as a painter, but it is in textiles that she has found her medium. In her intricate embroideries and weavings abstract patterns of numinous power emerge from shimmering multi-coloured backgrounds. Whether achieved through the use of thread on cotton canvas, enlivened by paint and gilding, or through the complex interactions of a four shaft loom, these shapes give vivid three-dimensional form to complex underlying mathematical structures. Ethereal and mysterious in origin, these presences are also somehow earthily grounded through their embodiment in thread - this fundamental cultural material, which reaches back through millennia, but also gave birth to the digital present and future, through the sophisticated technology of the loom.
The vital strength of Charlton’s work owes much to the circuitous route she has taken to discover her creative language. She describes each stage as more or less an accidental turn, and yet, in hindsight, the map was there. Charlton grew up in a family of sewers. Her grandmother had a masters in textiles from the Wayne State University in Detroit. Her mother set up as a seamstress in her mid-forties, a business that she maintained for 25 years. Charlton and her sisters were taught to sew, growing up, and introduced to a variety of techniques. But when it came to Charlton’s own career choices, it was to her father’s profession within the sciences that she looked. As she puts it, “I think that it was presented to me growing up that engineering was the profession and sewing was the hobby or the domestic activity.”
Two weeks into an engineering degree, however, at the University of Pittsburgh, to which she had won a scholarship, Charlton realised that her fascination with mathematics took her only so far. She abandoned the course, travelled in Central America, joined an intentional community where she learned to throw pottery, and then moved to the Hudson Valley as a ceramics assistant. Working in remote isolation for one sculptor, with whom she deconstructed and reconstructed a wood-fired kiln, by chance she met someone whose son had done a Fine Art degree at Hunter College. She applied and got in. To her surprise, among all the disciplines, it was painting that drew Charlton. She loved its freedom from the constraints of function and the joy of colour.
So Charlton began her MA at the Royal College of Art in London as a painter. She was making precise, clean, geometric abstract work. As her final year thesis made evident, her references were titans of twentieth century abstraction - Hilma Af Klint, Sol le Witt, Dan Flavin, Tomma Abts - as well as Aboriginal art. Charlton’s take on these artists is distinctive. Her thesis, titled with teasing dryness Abstracting Abstraction: a Mathematical Approach to the Mechanics of Abstract Aesthetics, sets out to show how consistently, throughout art history, abstract art, far from distancing artists from reality, has enabled an opening to a transcendent reality, whether metaphysical, spiritual or conceptual. She explores her awareness that, just as in her own work today, lying behind the abstraction, giving rise to it, are pressing human concerns.
This intuition was reinforced by Charlton's first trip to Italy, for her first New Year in Europe. Here, it was the mosaics on the floors of ancient buildings that overwhelmed her: “Throughout the floor of the church there would be hundreds of patterns and you didn’t need to have hundreds of patterns. There was something reverential about that abundance,” she says. Seeing in this the germ of her later interest in textile, Charlton identifies in both media: “the connection between labour and reverence; labour and transcendence; the connections between pattern and the spiritual; the ways pattern stands in for or connects us to these transcendental realms.”
A summer residency in Sweden was preceded by the serendipitous discovery of a book about Bargello, a type of embroidery named for examples found on chairs in the Bargello palace in Florence. The technique involves laying vertical stitches in a mathematical pattern to create motifs, with no stitches crossing or going sideways. They can be organised in different clusters to create dancing or swooping curves. Charlton recognised that this was a medium that is geared towards representing pattern, in contrast with paint: “I just thought that this is a way to work collaboratively with a medium rather than fighting a medium that I feel I have to dominate or control.” She began to experiment, finding a pleasure in the astonishing effects - likes flames or ripples or passing shadows - that can be achieved from the vertical stitches. The combination of simplicity and complexity is itself a delight - the dynamism of the patterns arising from the strict grid. Gradually Charlton has extended the effects she can achieve by painting on the cotton canvas and gilding parts of the thread.
Charlton returned to the RCA and did not create another painting. Bargello consumed her interest. Weaving, she suggests, came next as a complete surprise. She became interested in the genre through Welsh tapestry weaving, a technique for creating complex coloured geometric patterns on a loom by double weaving – in essence, creating two different cloths at once. In an enthusiastic passion, Charlton located her counter-march loom and began obsessively to study the theory and techniques of weaving. Through this complex, inherently digital process, she has found a different way of combining her love of order and mathematics with the vagaries of chance and intuitive disruption. She is able to create a great deal of complexity by loading stripes of coloured yarns onto the warp and then using different drafts of patterns, like musical scores, for the weft, using her treadles to swop between them. She moves instinctively from one to another, generating her own hybrid patterns, which while they maintain a vertical symmetry, like Rorschach blots, have no horizontal symmetry, suggesting a living spontaneity. Some of the shapes that emerge are more organic than geometric - as if they took advantage of this generative system to take form momentarily, their hovering presence anchored by the warp.
Charlton weaves and sews in tandem using Axminster’s and Appleton’s wool – yarn producers that date back to 1755 and 1850 respectively, both offering yarns from British sheep in a bounty of colours. The many layers of colour achieved by both processes produce an effect like paint glazes, building up an optical experience of great richness from tiny pixels of individuated hue. As Charlton says, however, “With a painting, colour is something that you apply to a substrate; with this, the colour is the substrate.” The works assert their presence, as if conjuring strange spirits into being.
Essay by Emma Crichton-Miller