Sophy Naess, Untitled (To plumb), 2017
Curtain in progress

Wool and cotton tapestry with painted warp


We've talked a lot about the horizontal versus the vertical axes in your tapestry work, how the tension between these really produces the image in a concrete way. Can you flesh out why this tension interests you a bit here?

I first became interested in the “painted warp” technique when a friend showed me a sample of this technique she’d made in a class. I was really struck by how the loom distorted the painted mark, which had been applied to the warp before weaving. There’s a kind of stretching that happens to the painted image. Whether this happens along the vertical or the horizontal depends on how the image is oriented when painted onto the warps, but it’s a phenomenon that’s contingent on the warps being under variable tension on the loom.

Working on the loom is also a way of building the surface of the image as you go, in a very different way than painting on canvas is. Like, the surface does not exist until warp and weft are woven together. There is no hierarchy between surface and substrate – the image is totally embedded in the fabric, it is contingent on the horizontal and vertical elements being interwoven. This is really fascinating to me. I’m interested in how different weave structures exist as both form and content in the image.

How does the image of the sword swallowers relate to this tension? Another way of asking this is how you imagine the relationship between text and subtext.

Why sword swallowers. This image interests me for the same reasons as the Minoan Bull Jumping frescoes: it depicts a moment of ecstasy, a glorious feat which is also extremely dangerous or precarious. Self destructive, but also erotic and defiant and empowered. Very high stakes self penetration. Something beyond the pleasure principle.

Sword swallowing is open to a number of interpretations but in any case, performing it successfully requires a very careful alignment of the body. I wanted to subject the contours of the figures pictured here to the mechanics of the loom, to in a sense mirror the relationship of the body and the sword with the relationship of the image and the mechanics of the loom.

In the context of this show I have been thinking a lot about the embodied nature of attention. I wonder how you think about attention with tapestry, which is such slow methodical work.

It is indeed slow and methodical, and this is what I want from it. I saw Donna Nelson give a talk recently where she said that painting “restores time to my life.”

Some people I know who own dogs talk about how the responsibility has given a welcome structure to their days. This is how I feel about weaving. It’s a kind of commitment to making time for something that is excessive, uncalled for. It is a way of reclaiming the pleasure of a very inefficient kind of attention. Which painting is, too, of course. I am someone who has a very fraught relationship to questions of the painted mark (which is maybe too much to get into here) and weaving for me is a way of slowing down. The structural variables and the idiosyncratic results of working with a machine that I don’t entirely have command of make the work exciting for me, whereas a similar methodical process of applying paint to a surface would feel like a very different kind of submission to labor which I wouldn’t be interested in.

I recently overheard a critic asking a gallerist whether the work on view was meant to set up an equivalent relation of some kind between the labor of making it and the labor of looking at it. I don’t want to fetishize my labor, but I imagine that the complex structure of the slowly woven image, which sustains my interest as a laborer, is also what sustains the attention of the viewer.

Sophy Naess with NM Llorens

Sophy Naess received a B.F.A. in painting from Cooper Union in 2004 and an M.F.A. in painting from Rutgers University in 2013. She has taught painting and printmaking at schools including Konsthögskolan Valand in Gothenburg, Sweden, and at Cooper Union. Recent exhibitions include a solo at 321 Gallery in Brooklyn, and group shows at The New School, Chapter NY, and Matthew Marks Gallery in New York City. She has been artist in residence at the Shandaken Project, NY; The Brooklyn Arts Council's SU CASA program at the Bay Ridge Senior Center in Brooklyn, and at The Range, CO. A number of her publications are available through Printed Matter. Naess has been working as lecturer in painting/printmaking at Yale since 2016.