A short while back, a reader with the nom de blog of Quilt Works asked, “Have you ever done features on fiber artists?” Man, did she push a button!
Love the Work, Hate the Adjective
Let me start out by saying this: Quilt Works, I mean you no disrespect. I love quilts and textiles. Amish quilts, Gee’s Bend quilts, Faith Ringgold’s quilts, Alighero e Boeti’s embroidered canvases, and the work in fiber of many other artists, well known or lesser so. So it’s not the medium that pushes my button but the use of the adjective as a means of identification.
Allie Pettway quilt. Pettway is one of the Gee's Bend Quilters represented by the New York gallery Ameringer/McEnery/Yohe. (Image from the Internet)
In one of my first posts for this blog, I wrote my personal manifesto, I Am Not an Encaustic Artist. As I said in the post, I work in the medium because it allows me to express myself in the best possible way, but I don't want to be defined by it. Encaustic is something I use (and love using), but it's not who I am.
I’ll bet that Oliver Herring, when he was crocheting his sculptures a decade ago, called himself a sculptor, not a fiber artist (he was just on the cover of the September Art News, by the way). I'll bet Shinique Smith, who works with baled forms, and Peter Weber, who works with folded felt, do not call themselves fiber artists.
Interestingly, any of the aforementioned artists who work with fiber could easily be the subject of a feature in a textile magazine, but the reverse does not hold true. How many self-identified weavers, for instance, have you see in in Art in America? There is plenty of work in fiber in those publications, but it's under the conventional art categories of painting, sculpture, work on paper, maybe installation. Indeed, when I was looking at some of the textile-influenced work at shows during Armory week in New York, I couldn't help thinking that I've seen so much better by artists who might define themselves as "fiber artists"--but much of the rest of the art world hasn't seen this work because it's sequestered in "fiber" and "textile" shows.
(The quilts are an interesting issue on their own. Those that spring out of a particular culture--Amish or Gee's Bend, or Navajo weaving for that matter, may be included in museum and gallery shows, but typically under the cultural rubric; individual artists often remain anonymous.)
Acknowledging our Commonalities, Limiting our Limitations
I love materiality, and I understand the powerful need for artists to align themselves with others. I have done it myself--and still do when the occasion seems appropriate to me. But as a general means of identification, no. I currently run an annual conference for painters who work in encaustic, and some years ago I edited a magazine called Fiberarts, which is still published. I think the specific focus of a publication or event provides a place for artists who work in a particular medium to show their work to that particular audience, to share information and network. This is true of other "adjectives" as well: women artists, black artists, gay artists, and artists of any ethnicity or culture. It can be emotionally fulfilling, to say nothing of professionally helpful, to align ourselves with others who are who we are, who do what we do. But not all the time; that's a ghetto.
Besides, we have many adjectives to describe us; where would it end? Without denying any part of how I identify myself in the world, for instance, it would nevertheless be ridiculous to ghettoize myself artistically as a mid-career Italian-American lesbian feminist encaustic artist.
I've come to this point of view over time: The more narrowly we define ourselves, the narrower our opportunities will be.
So you can count on me to write about art made with all of all kinds of materials--and to discuss the materials--but without defining the artist by the medium, as much as it is possible do so.
Over to You
Do/did you define your art (or your artist self) with an adjective? Do you you struggle with the "adjective" issue? How do you deal with it? Do you feel you've ever been eliminated, overlooked, or dismissed because of the adjective rather than the work? Do you think you may have limited your own opportunities for grants or exhibitions because of the way you define your art? Or, has it helped you?