Threads of Light: Painting with Cloth

Pucker Gallery
Aug 5, 2016 7:02PM

In Lighting Strikes Twice a thin, bright horizon created by one strand of white thread and lightning created by a few running stitches are the quintessence of Ali’s imaginative use of fiber as pigment.  But it is her skillful use of found cloth of varying weight and texture, dyed with graduated colors or woven with printed patterns that reveals her ability to think about and to manipulate such material in the way other painters use conventional pigment.  She has translated the painter’s vocabulary for applying pigment, texture, brush strokes, blending and shading of color and modeling of light into a new language of cloth.

Frequently Ali employs motion in a manner that is dramatic enough to create palpable tension within the environment of a picture.  The approaching thunder storm that darkens the bleak landscape of Lighting Strikes Twice, and has pulled a sheer dress into its vortex, has overtones of terror, even violence.  In contrast to her use of motion, energy and tension as thresholds into her paintings, Ali also frequently employs stillness and silence to establish a dominant mood.  In some paintings this combination serves to quiet or neutralizes the mood of a picture.  In other cases this combination suggests a narrative, although always unfinished.  

After her use of cloth as pigment, throughout her career the use of light, and the lack of it, has been Ali’s second most distinctive innovation.  But the two are inextricable.  Over time and continued experiments with layering sheer textiles to model shapes and create shadows and graduations of light and bold dappled interior patterns of light, Ali has evolved her own formulas for the more conventional chiaroscuro techniques deeply embedded in Western painting since the Italian Renaissance.  Ali employs and manipulates light unlike the effusive washes of light that saturate the canvasses of Monet and other impressionists, but rather more like the manner in which Rembrandt employed “obscure light” to clarify details and to enhance the darkness of his canvasses.  With Ali, too, her choice of varying qualities and sources of light defines her use of shadow and of darkness as comparable devices for modeling forms in her paintings.

Beyond Ali’s use of light to ‘color’ an image, or suggest meaning, mood, or tone, her most engaging use of light is for its expressive liminal function, serving as a threshold between the physical world in which the viewer stands and the inner world of the painting. Frequently this is the result of an enticing manipulation of light sources.  It is through her manipulation of light from various sources, often within the same painting, that Ali provides access into a painting.  Not only does this eccentricity catch our attention, but it can tease logic and challenge our perception, making us look at the picture longer, or for a second and third time, thereby allowing us the leisure to be captured within the world of that image.

Ali is an ardent traveler and increasingly these experiences provide the impetus for her cloth paintings.  While location provided the backdrop for her past Mexican and Venetian paintings, her most recent paintings are essentially about the backdrop—Colorado’s Grand Canyon, that great chasm in the Colorado Plateau carved out by the Colorado river over millennia, where Ali trekked and boated in 2005.  The two dominant features of the Canyon that have inspired this group of Ali’s cloth paintings to date are the unique light and the dramatic surfaces of the steep walls of the Canyon where it is possible to study, in detail, three of the four known eras of geological time.


In the Grand Canyon light falls into the interior from heights ranging from 4,000 to 6,000 feet, bouncing downward from surface to surface, or cascading and trickling down the numerous narrow waterfalls that form pools in the basin.  Occasionally the Canyon walls split open onto narrow slices of the bright Colorado sky, giving a more accurate sense of the immense scale of the Canyon.  One of Ali’s smaller paintings of the Canyon, Grand Canyon VIII illustrates how the red-brown colors of the Canyon walls filter and color the ambient light as it comes to rest outside a dark cavern.  In terms of technique, this is the closest thing to a cloth sketch that Ali has completed.

As if to rise to the challenge of conveying the almost imponderable size of the Grand Canyon, Ali has conceived most of these paintings on a very large scale.  And with this most recent group of paintings she has taken on another major challenge in her use of cloth as pigment.  In direct contrast to her earlier success at disguising cloth, she now seems to celebrate it.

“Because I think of cloth as paint, earlier I did not want the texture or the wrinkles of the cloth to interfere with the imagery.  However, with the new Grand Canyon pieces, for example, I am using the fabrics in the opposite way, showing the rough edges and using the wrinkles and the raw edges of the fabric to cast small shadows and to give an illusion of rocks.”

                                                                                 — Alison Cann-Clift

In these paintings the natural qualities of variously textured cloth ripple to the surface of the Canyon walls, rocks and water, and extend out to the untrimmed and unmatted edges of the paintings.  When studied at close range, these graduations of color in the Canyon walls are seen to be a myriad of small cut pieces of overlaid cloth secured solely by large, prominent stitches that enhance and, at times, agitate the surface.  However, far from agitating Red Canyon Wall, this same complex technique of dense overlaying produces one of Ali’s most beautiful and tranquil compositions.  The rhythmic flow of the graduated light illuminates the quiet surface of a pool of iridescent cloth and rests on a single figure who stands between the light and a darkened cavern, and whose small size implies something of the vastness of this single location within the Canyon. 

Ali’s use of synthetic iridescent and metallic cloth has been fully exploited in the deep watery surface of the pool in Grand Canyon VI in which she makes effective use of the interplay between the iridescence of different colored sheer layers and the inherent reflective sheen of these textiles.  While, the vertical format of Grand Canyon IX, has allowed Ali not only to fully describe the lengthy cascade of light down the rugged Canyon walls, but also its life-giving powers deep below the surface of the earth.  In addition to the large format, the power of this painting comes from Ali’s ability to recreate what she has seen and experienced, and to imbed her immediate sense of the Canyon’s rugged beauty.  This painting is Ali’s self-conscious use of cloth in its most daring and mature form.


— William Thrasher

                                                                                                     Wellesley, Massachusetts

December 2007


This text is selected from an essay that will appear in a forthcoming catalogue published by the Fuller Craft Museum in cooperation with Pucker Gallery to accompany the retrospective exhibition Ali’s Light: The Cloth Paintings, 1976-2006.  The exhibition will be at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts from June 30, 2007 to October 21, 2007. For more information please visit

Pucker Gallery