Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Tales We Weave (part 1)

The Tales We Weave (Part 1)
By Tom Wachunas

Over the past several decades, the “feminine needle arts” have convincingly outgrown their historical niche as decorative, functional craft. Quilts and embroidery samplers, for example, were once perceived in the West as the purview of women who were not otherwise encouraged to participate in a man’s world of ‘serious’ art making, and seen as relatively milquetoast mediums when compared to such ‘high art’ pursuits as painting and sculpture. But the creative and certainly ingenious manipulation of textiles (including weaving, quilting, embroidery, knotting, beadwork, and applique, among other methods) now occupies a significant and vital place in the world of contemporary fine art. Abundant and compelling evidence is currently on view in the spectacular exhibit called “Focus: Fiber 2011” at the Canton Museum of Art.

Coordinated with the Textile Art Alliance of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the show is a stunning cross section of fiber works by 39 artists from across eight states. The exhibit was juried by internationally prominent fiber artist Dorothy Caldwell, who selected 50 pieces from 278 submissions. In her statement for the show, she tells us, “I was struck by the audacious use of eccentric fabrics and casual construction – the unpredictable carrier of a message.”

Audacious…unpredictable…message. Yes indeed to all three. The range of scale, methods of construction, and visual/conceptual content here are remarkably deep, often surprising, and consistently intriguing.

In the hard-to-miss large scale department, there’s the razzle-dazzle “Resurrection” by Heather Ujiie. It’s a joyously electrifying union of digital ink jet images and embroidery, with beadwork and other intricate embellishments. This preternatural panorama – a psychedelic Garden of Eden tapestry, really – is made on six hanging cotton panels, each measuring 10’ in height and collectively spanning 19’ across. Absolutely mesmerizing.

Large (10’x4 ½’) and mesmerizing too, but in a much more understated way, is “Cell Tower Stretch” by Catherine Theodore. Her hand-dyed rayon and cotton threads are ‘Jacquard woven’ (a computerized loom mechanism/process that produces a tight, smooth, gently raised texture) into a lush, bluish-gray field beautifully interwoven with other colors that quietly offset the black silhouette of a cell phone tower, thus imbuing a thoroughly modern industrial structure with a classical elegance.

“In a Different Light” by Xia Gao is, again, very large (approx. 15’x7’) and even more subtle. This impressive expanse of buckram (a stiffened cotton/linen) is screen printed with an abstract, all- blue “pattern” that suggests an aerial view of earthbound organic detritus. The configuration looks as if literally lifted from the ground, like an elaborate collograph or stencil. The entire work hangs about three feet away from the wall, suspended from brackets, and is perforated all over with tiny burn holes. It begins to make more sense after reading Gao’s accompanying statement (something I highly recommend for all the works in this show).

Therein we learn that the work addresses Gao’s personal connection to the state of Nebraska and that the tiny holes were produced by burning incense sticks through the fabric. The randomness of the organic plain becomes a kind of organized spiritual plane that passes light through the holes, making for the delightful surprise of dozens of silhouetted images projected on the wall behind. The images are largely of human figures engaging the natural landscape. And so the work takes on a fascinating sculptural dimensionality as it requires us to shift our physical orientation to it, to see it not just from the conventional front and center pictorial position, but from behind and underneath as well. It’s a powerful, pro-active metaphor for shifting our perspective on relationship with the natural landscape.

For that matter, it brings to mind the overall heft and beauty of this show (more comments to be offered soon in part 2) – a refreshing, thoroughly engaging conflation of tradition and innovation.

Photo, courtesy Canton Museum of Art: “Resurrection” by Heather Ujiie, on view through March 4, 2012, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N. in Canton, Ohio. (330) 453 – 7666

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