Paris-based artist Sheila Hicks is best known for her monumental works. This exhibition at the Centre Pompidou Málaga does not disappoint with the inclusion of Lianes de Beauvais (2011–2012), a suspended linen sculpture reminiscent of delicate skeins of embroidery floss magnified to 4.3 meters in height. Created a decade later, the smaller and more ordered Lianes Champagne (2023) is nearby, offering an indication of the exhibition’s logic: themes of return and rediscovery curator Michel Gauthier suggests through a productive disregard for chronology across Hick’s six-decade career.
In 1957 a Fulbright scholarship to Chile allowed the American-born Hicks to travel in Latin America, before settling in Mexico from 1960–1964. She credits the early encouragement of the Mexican architect Luis Barragán for her commitment to large-scale textiles. Gauthier draws extensively from Hicks’ archive of photographs from her travels during this period. A 1958 black and white photograph of wooden poles scattered in a shipyard is paired with the colourfully bound bamboo sticks of Batons de parole (2021–2023) early in the exhibition. Several rooms later, another photograph, this time of a house on stilts also taken in Chile in 1957 is placed near a further selection of Batons.
Hicks early work focused on weaving, before shifting to what she describes as “working without tools, just working with my hands”. “Wresting the textile work from the model of tapestry” is Gauthier’s description in the accompanying exhibition catalogue (pp. 23). Both statements signal a closeness to materials Hicks continues to remain unwilling to out-source. Instead Hicks explains in a 2014 video: “At the beginning you try to make materials do what you want them to do. As time goes on you understand how to let them do what they want to do, but your way.” (“Begin with a thread”)
The ongoing series Minimes are an exception to the idea that Hicks ever really turned away from weaving. Created on a portable frame that results in four (rather than two) selvedge edges, the twenty examples included in this exhibition act like pages of sketchbook, snapshots of possibilities. Also included are Córdoba (2011), a work inspired by the Spanish city’s Mezquita that is reconfigured with each installation and no less than seven videos, playing over an hour of footage on five screens. The video viewing time requires some patience, but what features predominantly is not distant analysis or interpretation, but Hicks’ own clear voice.
The bulk of this exhibition does not focus on what Hicks is in fact known for: the monumental. Nuage de Madagascar (2023), two suspended net-like structures of bast fibres, open the exhibition with a third signalling the close. Both in choice of fibre and scale the works are curious, but ultimately telling, bookends for the Paris-based artist’s first solo exhibition in Spain. In a 1987 video recorded by Bernard Monsigny, she explains: “I hope to bring Textile art up from the basement… to elevate in the eyes of those who look at the art of our time.” (HICKS. Tissages métissés) Thirty-six years on and the headway Hicks has made towards this difficult goal is in evidence not in the monumental for which she is celebrated, but in the quiet assurance of the modest. Jessica Hemmings
‘Sheila Hicks: Travelling Threads’ is showing at the Centre Pompidou in Málaga until 10 September 2023.