Diverse Practices, Common Threads

Textility, which I co-curated with Mary Birmingham at the Visual Art Center of New Jersey, Summit, opens on Friday, January 13, and runs through April 1. This essay is included in the exhibition catalog. .
Textility was conceived in Miami last December. That’s where Mary Birmingham and I, standing by chance in front of an Arlene Shechet clay sculpture with a surface that can only be described as velvet, noted the significant number of textile-esque works we had been seeing in booths and hotel rooms throughout the fairs: knitted paintings, painted quilts, metal tapestries and more. Our previously expressed desire to work together focused, then and there, on creating an exhibition for her institution, the Visual Art Center of New Jersey, of contemporary painting, sculpture and work on paper that had a connection to thread and cloth.
 Arlene Shechet sculpture, seen in Miami 2011 at the Jack Shainman Gallery booth, a year after we saw the related skein-like work that inspired our show

“Textility,” a word we coined for this exhibition, describes a contemporary esthetic which draws from a textile tradition, or which exhibits a material presence or conceptual quality related to textiles. The exhibition brings together the work of 28 artists who approach their métier by material means: paintings and sculptures made with stuff other than paint, or conversely, paintings and drawings that reference fiber and cloth, some convincingly so. We’re not talking “fiber art” but about the way fiber has insinuated itself more broadly into the fabric of contemporary art.

The work we selected falls largely into one of two flexible categories: Paintings Without Paint and Textiles Without Thread. A third category, Materiality and Process, allows us to consider idiosyncratic work in more specific ways. .
Paintings Without Paint
"The interesting thing is that I started working on these paintings when I took a studio in the garment district.”—Sharon Butler

“After a time, I dropped the stretchers and just pinned the constituent elements to the wall. This move brought planar abstraction into the realm of assemblage, and I found myself coaxing pictorial space into existence through sculptural means.”—Stephen Maine

“I’m not a painter. My artwork is built with materials such as wax, paper, string, eggshells. Finding unique ways to manipulate these materials interests me.” –Debra Ramsay  

Sharon Butler, UniQlo, 2011, spray paint, pigment, urethane, pencil and sewing on unstretched gessoed canvas and unprimed linen, 66 x 50 inches; courtesy of the artist
Sharon Butler provides a bridge to Textility from conventional painting. With her patchwork UniQlo, Butler reminds us that canvas off the stretcher reasserts itself as fabric rather than disappearing into the substrate. She has stitched together both painting parts and rectangles of unprimed linen, allowing the painting and the non-painting, with their respective lozenge shapes and angular wrinkles, to collide and then resolve into conceptual and compositional détente.

Stephen Maine’s geometric constructions of fabrics pinned to the wall are paintings made completely without paint. Mesh painting #11-011 is simultaneously toothy and diaphanous. You’d think the assertive grid would do the heavy lifting, but in fact it is the shadow that aligns the layers of materiality and sheerness into a hovering dimensional presence.  

Stephen Maine, Mesh painting #11-011, 2011, acrylic, paper, plastic mesh, thermal insulation, T-pins, 36 x 36 x 6 inches; courtesy of the artist

Working more materially with felt, Peter Weber employs mathematical processes to fold one piece of fabric into a tactile painting—or is it a planar sculpture?—which suggests a woven grid.

Then there is Mary Carlson’s translucent Ghost Flag. I think of this work as the anti-Jasper Johns, an object image as transcendent as Johns’ is resolutely material. If Johns’ encaustic flag is subversive as the idea of the object, Carlson’s is equally so, for hers is a painting that is a flag, even made according to U.S. guidelines for proper proportion.
Mary Carlson, Ghost Flag, 2007, sewn sheer fabric, 123 x 70 ins; courtesy of Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York City

Let us also consider Drawing Without Pencil in this category. Debra Ramsay uses the linearity of tautly pulled threads to create immersive installations with mathematically determined proportions, such as the ones in this exhibition. The exquisitely rendered works embody drawing, painting and sculpture.

Debra Ramsay, detail of Two, Twice With Green and Yellow, 2011, thread, fabric and other materials, dimensions variable 

While Ramsay’s work is based on rule and measure, Gelah Penn’s drawings appear spontaneous and expressionistic. Seeing them, I think of the type of lace known in Italian as punto in aria, literally, a stitch in air.  Penn’s drawings have nothing to do with lace, but everything to do with stitches in air, or as she  would describe them, “the linear language of drawing in sculptural space.”  In works such as Big Blackfil #1, Penn creates gestural abstractions in low relief whose stitched and knotted monofilaments—punti in aria— tangle with their own shadows.
Gelah Penn, detail of Big Blackfil #1, 2010, monofilament, mosquito netting, plastic mesh, acrylic and graphite on Yupo, 60 x 38 x 6 inches; courtesy of the artist .
Textiles without Thread
“My painting expresses the passion I have for the tactile nature of fabrics and their topographies.”—Lalani Nan

“In these veneer pieces I am interested in exploring the nature of wood as a material. It is the lace image that transforms the wood by revealing both fragility and strength . . . contradictory, and quietly subversive, the doily has gone wild and the wood has been fully domesticated.”—Susanna Starr

“I love the idea of weaving as a metaphor. The warp is the vertical direction, joining all degrees of existence. The weft is the horizontal; nature in time and space.” –Grace DeGennaro

Lalani Nan, Gray, 2006, oil on linen, 52 x 46 inches; courtesy of Kenise Barnes Fine Art, Larchmont, New York
Lalani Nan paints outsize portraits of fabric—satins and taffetas, whose folds reflect or hold light dramatically. It is impossible not to think of the European court painters, or the Americans such as John Singer Sargent, who conveyed the wealth of the sitters wearing fabrics such as these and, in a sly wink, their sensuality. There is no sly wink here. Nan’s paintings, like Gray, are out and out luscious.

A similar kind of sensuality imbues Leslie Wayne’s work. Her paintings are objects, undeniably sculptural, and her intent is to evoke “the forces of nature” with tectonic movement, or the rush of water and wind. But the subtext, for me, is their textility. Wayne works like a dressmaker, gathering, ruching and draping her paint film, the sway of a skirt or the fall of a sleeve held forever in the moment.
Leslie Wayne, One Big Love #46, 2010, oil on wood, 14 x 11 inches; courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York City

Barbara Ellmann paints patterns from textiles around the world. Wherewithall is her way of seeing culture not as a mass of disparate parts separated by geography, language and politics, but as a patchwork of shared and related elements. Formally, her textile patterns relate to geometric abstraction.

Barbara Ellmann, detail of Wherewithall, 2011, encaustic on wooden panel; 12 panels, 24 x 24 inches each, 102 x 76 inches overall; courtesy of the artist

Below: Grace DeGennaro, Weaving, 2007, oil on linen, 26 x 16 inches; courtesy of Aucocisco Gallery, Portland, Maine

The geometry in Grace DeGennaro’s Weaving was inspired more specifically by the patterns of Navajo blankets. DeGennaro approaches pattern with a unique system of paint application that she describes as “beads.” These are dots of alternating color, often black and white, that seem to shimmer. “The image is conceived as symmetrical, but through the handmade process (in both the weaving and the painting) it becomes gently asymmetrical. I am interested in this humanizing of geometry,” she says.

With her monumental wood veneer doilies Susanna Starr allows us to regard a quaint object in a new way, since she has altered its medium, enlarged its size, and reoriented its placement from tabletop to wall. One thing has not changed: the precise handwork. Rather than crocheting this doily, however, Starr cut into thin veneer freehand with a penknife. Notes Birmingham: “She injects a bit of ironic humor into her creation of Dresser Doily, since the doily in this case is actually made from the same material as a dresser.”
Susanna Starr, Dresser Doily, 2005, hand-cut mahogany wood veneer, 70 x 47 inches; courtesy of Marcia Wood Gallery, Atlanta

Below: Sam Moyer, Close Screen, 2011, ink on paper, 22 x 30 inches; courtesy of Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York City

From wax-painted rugs to bleached paintings to ink drawings of plain weave, there is a strong textile sensibility in Sam Moyer’s oeuvre. For this exhibition we have included an ink drawing in which the artist so convincingly captures the distinctive variations of a weave that it could well be considered a portrait. Also working on paper, but with a different perspective, Sam Messenger creates large-scale drawings, in white ink on a black ink-washed ground, which evoke billowing nets and fluttering veils, their size at thrilling odds with their apparent lightness.

Sam Messenger, Veil from Alpheus, 2011, pen and ink, ink wash, starch paste, ans river water onpaper, 64 x 59 inches; courtesy of Davidson Contemporary, New York City

Arlene Shechet, whose undulating skeins of clay proved an unwitting catalyst to Textility, is here represented by a spiral of rope in cast and pigmented crystal. Coil is as luminous and fragile a form as its matrix was dun and pliant.

Arlene Shechet, Coil, 2004-07, cast and pigmented crystal, 25 x 8.5 x 7 inches; courtesy of the artists and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York City  
Materiality and Process
Despite the various means by which artists have approached painting, sculpture and drawing in Textility, we may tease out of their variety some common threads.
Pip Culbert, Patchwork, Blue and Pale Blue, 2010, cotton and pins, 41 x 27 inches; courtesy of Fouladi Projects, San Francisco

Grid and Web
The connection between modernism’s basic structure, the grid, and the rectilinear web made by the interlacement of warp and weft threads is rarely noted but eminently apparent. Both are foundations onto which more complex elements can be built, or which may stand alone as minimalist structures.

Consider the cutaway quilt by Pip Culbert, Patchwork, Blue and Pale Blue. Stripped of its function as a covering, indeed as a cloth, it is as materially reductive a grid as you will see; consisting of seams, essentially, it must be pinned to the wall for support. Conversely, in 176 by Ken Weathersby there is a meticulously painted checkerboard skin—a fabric, if you will—stretched atop a multilayered grid. While Weathersby’s work is not textile in intent, it is built in ways that evoke fabric construction, from an inference of weave in the painted skin to the dimensional lattice evocative not only of textile structure but of the loom itself. If Culbert is the anti-quilter, Weathersby is the conceptual weaver.
Ken Weathersby, detail of 179 (twn), 2010, acrylic paint film with removed area over wood scaffold over linen, two panels, each 24 x 19 inches; courtesy of the artist

Engaging the grid and implying a weave, Marietta Hoferer works with packing tape on paper. Snippets of tape, precisely cut and placed, create a pattern with an under/over rhythm. Nuance, reflection and inflection color her work, which like Culbert’s and Weathersby’s, is largely achromatic.

Marietta Hoferer, B, 2011, pencil and transparent tape with black line on paper,
21 x 21 inches; courtesy of the artist

Joell Baxter engages weaving fully. Working chromatically with papers she has screenprinted on both sides, she creates woven forms that are set onto the floor: “I am attracted to the idea of building a structure from the simplest parts possible, using the simplest process possible,” she says. Viewing these works, which Baxter sees as hovering between object and image, it is not difficult to make the conceptual leap from basketry to architecture, one grid to another.
Joell Baxter, detail of Endless Day (For G.M.B.), 2011, screenprint paper, glue, 46 x 46 x 5 inches; courtesy of the artist

Unapologetically Domestic
What might have once been disregarded as “women’s work” –or more recently elevated as such—is now simply a means by artists of either sex to make art unfreighted with polemical issues. Weaving, stitching, folding, pressing and other laborious household processes have become choices within the making of contemporary abstraction, rather than alternatives to it.

At first glance, Derick Melander’s sculpture recalls the painted columns of Anne Truitt, but as you get closer you see they are created with a different means and intent. Melander’s columns are  chromatic stacks of second-hand clothing.

Derick Melander, The Painful Spectable of Finding Oneself, 2010, second-hand clothing, wood and steel, 12 x 12 x 72 inches each; courtesy of the artist

“As clothing wears, fades, stains and stretches, it becomes an intimate record of our physical presence . . . For me the process of folding and stacking the individual garments adds a layer of meaning to the finished piece,” says the artist.

Carly Glovinski’s dimensional drawing, Untitled (dishrag), and Caroline Burton’s tape-and-thread wall sculpture, Untitled (tape 1), seem cut from the same cloth. Glovinski lavishes time and attention on an otherwise unremarkable object, the lowly kitchen dishcloth, here rendering it almost perfectly in ink and correction fluid on paper; Burton’s pillow, constructed from tape over wire, has form but no function. Yet both works invite the viewer into a more intimate consideration of domesticity.

Caroline Burton, Untitled (tape 1), 2006, tape, thread, wire, metal, 12.5 x 10 x 2.5 inches; courtesy of the artist and Accola Griefen Gallery, New York City         ...                                             
Carly Glovinski, Untitled (dishrag), 2010, ink and correction fluid on paper, 16 x 9 x 6.5 inches; courtesy of June Fitzpactick Gallery, Portland, Maine

Jennifer Cecere celebrates the domestic doily even as she creates her patterns on a computer and sends them out to be laser cut. “What interests me is that I’m taking something as personal and intimate as a handmade doily and making it large and public,” says Cecere, who has amassed a “huge collection” of doilies over the past 30 years.
With handwork there is the related issue of process. By its very nature, work done by hand was—and remains—time consuming and labor intensive. Once a necessary chore, it is now an option (at least in an industrial nation such as ours), the wonder being that so many artists continue to opt for it.

Elisa D’Arrigo, whose pieced-and-stitched Byzantine Homage I is included in this exhibition, describes the path of her practice this way: “It is the physical process of making the work that takes over and has a life of its own. A work in progress could evolve for months, (even years); expanding, contracting, even recombining with castoff parts of itself. My objective is to stay in the moment, mindful of accident and chance, responding to what unfolds. The actual working with materials, and how that results in particulars of form and configuration, is what ultimately determines each piece.”
Elisa D'Arrigo, Byzantine Homage (1), 2005, cloth acrylic paint, thread, 35 x 35 x 3 inches; courtesy of Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York City

Nava Lubelski, Chance of Flurries, 2011, thread on stained canvas, 46 x 36 inches, courtest of LMAKprojects, New York City
With her embroidered paintings, Nava Lubelski alternates between what she describes as “the impulse to destroy and the compulsion to mend.” Hers is a productive dichotomy. Working with stained linens she has found, or with canvas she has stained and cut herself, such as Chance of Flurries, Lubelsky then embellishes the blemishes with stitching and weaves lacelike webs into the voids. Sitting at a Thanksgiving table recently, I was struck by just how much her process owes to the handmade tablecloth, stains and all.

Aric Obrosey’s meticulously rendered drawings depict complex nets and laces. Can these be imagined constructions?

Aric Obrosey, Untitled, 2006, charcoal on paper, 30 x 22.5 inches; courtesy of McKenzie Fine Art, New York City

Anyone even casually acquainted with textiles would point out the variety of interlacements within a drawing such as his Untitled in charcoal. There is knotting and weaving, twining as used in basketry, and a type of knotless netting, sprang, that dates to the Bronze Age. Even the various strings are rendered in a variety of patterns, some as contemporary as bungee cords. Obrosey seems to have created a visual metaphor for the web of history.

Reworked and Repurposed
The categories defined in this essay are mutable and intertwined. Butler’s patched fabric paintings,  Melander’s columns of folded clothing, Lubelsky’s reworked stains, and D’Arrigo’s recombinant sculptures could as easily be discussed here, but let me note instead the work of three other artists in this exhibition.  

Lael Marshall intrigued us initially with her Dishtowel Paintings, repurposed kitchen cloths she had combined and painted, but it was her Drama Queen that ultimately found a place here. Patched from various materials whose seams, textures and bulges are barely contained under a skin of green paint, it is a formidable presence softened by a languid ruffle that runs along one side.

Lael Marshall, Drama Queen, 2010, oil and acrylic on various materials, 92 x 75 inches; courtesy of the artist

Susan Still Scott, Slider, 2010, acrylic, flashe and enamel paint on canvas, cotton duck, wood with staples, wire, polyfil fiber, 57 x 16 X 31 inches; courtesy of Kingston Gallery, Boston

“Process is basically my driving force,” says Susan Still Scott, underscoring the fluidity of our category construct. Yet it is her inclusion of used and reused materials that seems to navigate a path to and through her sculptures, such as Slider. “Unsuccessful canvases will be taken apart and bring something of value to a new piece.  . . The activity of using information supplied by the materials . . . is ultimately more important than knowing what it will ultimately turn out to be.” 

Over the past decade, Elana Herzog has made much of her work with found textiles—“often bedspreads and carpets,” she says—which she has stapled to a wall. Herzog describes her materials and process this way: “Parts of the fabric and the staples are then removed and sometimes reapplied, leaving a residue of shredded fabric and perforated wall surface in some areas, and densely stapled and built-up areas elsewhere.” In her framed and wall-mounted works in this exhibition, the scale is smaller but the approach is the same. Her Untitled has an almost festive air, agreeably at odds with the destructive nature of its construction.
Elana Herzog, Untitled, 2011, wood, metal staples, textile, 33 x 34 x 3 inches; courtesy of LMAKprojects, New York City

The Thread of Culture
Until a generation ago, almost everyone had a hand in handwork. Women, especially, knitted, crocheted and embroidered, and girls learned by example. In a society rent by gender roles, boys were surrounded by handwork, even if they typically did not follow—except in maritime communities or in Boy Scouts, where they plied nets, made knots and strung lines. Perhaps there was a tailor in the family, or someone who made clothes out of necessity or pleasure. We, all of us, had a connection to the collective tissue of our lives.

Of course we still wear clothing and sleep between sheets, but not everyone interacts consciously with cloth because we are now so removed from the warp and weft of it. Laundry? Maybe. Mending? Not so much. Who spins yarn anymore? Who weaves?  

Artists engage differently. We do. We make. Certainly the artists in this exhibition are makers. To paraphrase Scott’s description of her own process, they construct, disassemble, cut, glue, staple, repaint, stuff, squash and recycle. I’d add that the artists here also stitch, knot, weave, fold, rip, cast, stain, shred, drape, stretch, gather, layer and ply. Or they draw, paint and define space in ways that suggest those same actions and results. I suspect the attraction to materiality, to textility, satisfies our deeply ingrained need to extend ourselves physically beyond our fingertips. The artists in this exhibition, like many other artists working right now, continue to ply a thread—sometimes tangible, sometimes metaphorical—which has been spun continuously, consciously or not, from the very beginning of human culture.

Above: Peter Weber, Vernetzung BL6 (9), 2009, felt, 20.5 x 20.5 inches; courtesy of Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, Santa Fe, and Galerie Renate Bender, Munich

Below: Jennifer Cecere, a work in ripstop nylon similar to Mother, the one in the exhibition; courtesy of the artist

Quotes are from the artists’ statements with these exceptions: Joell Baxter, Sharon Butler, Grace DeGennaro and Barbara Ellmann in conversation or email exchange with the author; Susan Still Scott in conversation with Lynette Haggard. 

A Walk and Talk with the curators and artists will take place on Sunday, March 25, from 4:00-6:00 pm. Click here for directions and hours; click here for a blog post with screen grabs showing directions from Penn Station in Manhattan (scroll to the bottom of the post)

I expect to share more with you about this exhibition, including installation views, and (I hope) a few quick Q&As with some of the artists and a conversation with Birmingham in which we talk about the process of curating this show. Textility is up through April 1, so there should be enough time to get to it all. 


Brenda Goodman said...

this looks like a terrific show. congrats for such an intelligent selection. and arlene and susan wonderful work...brenda

Hylla Evans said...

This is an amazing grouping, each piece successful and appealing in its own way. I don't know how people manage not to touch every one of them.
The fabricness is palpable and seductive.

Sherrie Spangler said...

This is a fantastic, very inspiring exhibit. Thanks for bringing it via your blog to those of us who can't see it in person.

Nancy Natale said...

This show looks wonderful! I am so looking forward to seeing it in person. Thanks for whetting my appetite.

Bernard Klevickas said...

Wonderful and thorough descriptions and images. I've been to the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in the past and it is a great museum quality space. I hope to get out there to see this show.

Unknown said...

I'm honored to have my work included in the show. Terrific essay.

Anne Russinof said...

I can't wait to see the show. Marvelous idea and so great to see samples of the work here. Congrats all.

Lorri Ott said...

Very strong exhibition Joanne!
Smart. Fresh.
Thank you for sharing the images and essay.
Congratulations to all (go Susan!).

Jane Guthridge said...

Thanks for your fantastic blog on a beautifully curated show. I only wish I could see it in person to take in all the textures.

Nancy Natale said...

Much of this work is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Great show!

Grace DeGennaro said...

Many thanks Joanne for a beautiful exhibition and a terrific essay.

Wendy Kelly said...

From someone who has used thread as a drawing tool for the past few years, and who practices on the other side of the world, I would like to have been able to see the exhibition and have enjoyed reading your essay. Process is evident in the majority of the works, as is a strong sense of materiality, and it is encouraging to see their importance.