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    Dynamism and Whimsy: Fiber Art at The Sculpture Center

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    Computer aided embroidery by fiber artist Tina Cassara

    Anna Karenina Series: Collage 1. Tina Cassara. 2014. Cotton thread, computer aided embroidery. Dimensions variable (c. 72 x 20 x 3 inches)

    Two compelling exhibitions inaugurate the fall season at The Sculpture Center, located on the fringe of Uptown just east of University Circle on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. Though one originates in the meticulous culture of Japan and the other through an expressive myriad of black text-based forms—marking the first collaboration by local art professors Tina Cassara and David Sapp—both exhibitions pivot on fiber art and the use of technology as a tool for execution.

    The exhibition Japanese Contemporary Fiber Sculpture in Miniature is the first of its kind in the United States. It demonstrates an extraordinary breadth of surface, form, texture and color, unified by the vision of its curator, Dr. Hiroko Watanabe. The Sculpture Center’s Executive Director and Chief Curator, Ann Albano, viewed the initial iteration of this exhibition in Bratislava, Slovakia, in the summer of 2013. Dr. Watanabe agreed to create content specifically for The Sculpture Center in Cleveland, featuring her own work and that of forty-nine other fiber artists. On the week of September 14th, Dr. Watanabe delivered several lectures at The Sculpture Center about the inception and execution of the works on display — intricate specimens installed in a right-to-left rotation mirroring the manner of Japanese calligraphy.

    It is impossible to experience these miniatures without hunkering down inches from their surfaces and declaring of their intricacy, “how?!” It is equally tempting to wax poetic about all fifty sculptures, each of which summons astonishment and occasionally also humor through diverse choices of color, shape, and fiber (yarn, quilting, needlework, plastic, and metal, to name a few). I will abstain from the urge to wax rhapsodic, and instead highlight several characteristics that unite the “wrapping culture” of Watanabe’s students.

    Made largely by Tokyo-based artists, as a group these sculptures convey effortlessness and intimacy, frequently reminiscent of biological microorganisms such as bacteria and blood cells (Noriko Tomita’s Bunches of Lines, which resemble black and white cells in mitosis, and Noriko Takamiya’s Revolving Gaps Between Plaited Paper, are vivid examples). Most demonstrate a preoccupation with organic and even anthropomorphic forms, quoting the textures, layers and cavities of natural elements; many of these miniatures also appear to concern themselves with immutable life cycles.

    Japanese fiber art

    Birth. Kyoko Kumai. 2014. Weaving, sewing, stainless steel wire, Zircon. W 20 x H 20 x D 20 cm

    Kyoto Kumai’s Birth is a seed-shaped stainless steel wire volume that shimmers in the light of the gallery. Poignantly capturing a moment of origin, of inception, that could be biological, aesthetic, or both, the pod curves upward with weighty grace, spewing thirty slim wires at the tip of which are tiny spheres: dew, stars, or seeds. Kumai states, “My themes of making textiles are my real feelings from the beauties of nature; earth, water, fire, wind, air.” The artist reminisces about more than thirty years of “weaving” steel in this method, adding that the sculpture is meant to evoke numerous conceptual dichotomies: “light and shadow, organic and inorganic, hard and soft, existence and [nonexistence].”

    Far more representational, Atsuko Yoshioka’s Wind Passing Through the Wood is made of stainless steel covered in aluminum dye, cotton, and silk. It conveys the woven twigs of a snowy bird’s nest, inside of which four small spheres—perhaps eggs—lend the shadowed impression of a staircase that conjures associations with both an avian and human homestead. Like Kumai’s work, Yoshioka’s commands the viewer to contemplate plays of oppositional forces, such as static and kinetic energy. One can almost hear a winter wind forcibly bending the nest’s white twigs toward the composition’s right.

    Contemporary Japanese fiber art by Atsuko Yoshioka

    The Wind Passing Through the Wood. Atsuko Yoshioka. 2014. Hammering, dyeing, knitting, winding, braiding, stainless steel, aluminum, dye, cotton, silk. W 20 x H 20 x D 20 cm

    Pushing this concept of dynamic oppositions to its extreme is Naoko Serino’s Omoi, which the sculptor likens to the process of a conceptual idea manifesting physically. The sculpture is a gossamer-thin beige cube inside of which a perfect sphere hovers, marked by circular cavities in each of the cube’s walls; here, the sphere represents the artistic idea self-generating in the mind while the cube imitates the walls of reality through which it passes to become a physical product via the artist’s hand.

    Japanese fiber art by Naoko Serino

    Omoi. Naoko Serino. 2014. Original technique, Jute. W 20 x H 20 x D 20 cm

    The variety of this exhibition is striking. For instance, a kind of somber mysticism surrounds Kazuyo Onoyama’s Lucky Bag, a folded white polyester square with a single small golden triangle on its surface and a transparent fiberglass base that makes it appear to float. Yet right next to the “Fuku-Bukuro” stands Junko Suzuki’s infinitely playful Babyleon, a pastel-hued chameleon who “knows what is going on” because he is composed of newspaper. And Yasuko Okamoto’s Spine, a caterpillar-like abstraction of many angles with a rayon thread skin, bridges the gap between playfulness and grace.

    Tina Cassara, Professor and Co-Chair of Sculpture and Expanded Media at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and David Sapp, Professor of Drawing with research in art history, psychology, and creative behavior at Bowling Green State University, have collaborated for the first time to provide an exhibition at The Sculpture Center’s Euclid Avenue space. Several lines of intersection, both figurative and literal, characterize their newest project: Tina Cassara and David Sapp: Threads, Lines, Traces. Cassara’s black mesh-like fiber sculptures—like all of her current work—derive from textual passages such as oral histories by seamstresses, and Leo Tolstoy’s iconic novel Anna Karenina. Sapp, a poet who first saw Cassara’s work in Oberlin, Ohio, devised a program of drawings that translate furtive clusters of fiber into a churning, raw-worked surface of graphite and Conte crayon.

    Cassara’s computer-aided, machine-crocheted sculptures and Sapp’s drawings are both serial and nonobjective; in their exhibition space, they face each other on parallel walls. The reflective frames cleverly superimpose pale impressions of Cassara’s three-dimensional volumes, which make more liberal use of the cavities central to their off-kilter compositions. (Originally, Sapp based his drawings on an earlier body of Cassara’s work.) Expansive gestures in white crayon, described by Sapp as “lyrical, even Baroque,” challenge the depth of space created by receding, thinning lines and gray clouds of graphite.

    Drawing by artist David Sapp

    Untitled. David Sapp. 2014. Graphite and white conte on paper, 36 x 60 inches

    Cassara’s sculptures express pathos, but quietly, fragilely. And though shared color, value, and prioritized contours harmonize both groups of imagery, the drawings also strikingly offset that frailty. They seem to enlarge and expose the struggle mapped by Cassara’s black letter-webs. It is as if the two mediums are the visualization of a stringed symphony, which intersects at the point when the volume increases. Indeed, Sapp observes, “A drawing is initiated at a point of encounter and is often a tenuous fragment or impression. The beginning is often a highly chaotic and kinesthetic activity in the accumulation of line.” And Cassara adds, “The simple act of juxtaposition has led to experimentation and continued conversation.”

    Contemporary fiber art by Tina Cassara at the Sculpture Center in Cleveland, Ohio

    Anna Karenina Series: collage 1 (detail). Tina Cassara. 2014. Cotton thread, computer aided embroidery, Dimensions variable (c. 72 x 20 x 3 inches)

    Cassara’s Collage 1: Anna Karenina Series (2014) is a haunting culmination of the visual conversation. The silhouettes of her needlework create complex cast shadows. They call to mind frantically scribbled notes or love letters. They look like forms attempting hasty flight, yet snared by gravity. There is an implicit frustration in the fragmenting of the fiber webs into several puzzle pieces that just barely fail to unite, or even seem to have just been cut asunder. Of her creative process, Cassara elucidates, “I used search engines to find the word ‘lace’ in literature. At this point I concentrated on ‘the classics’ of Western literature. I was interested in how lace was / is used, as a symbol and as a way to further the underlying psychological narrative. I related strongly to all the references that appeared in Anna Karenina, so I chose to use them in this body of work. This is related to my unending interest in the ways cloth and textiles are part of our culture, deeply part of the culture and language, even as we are unaware that this is going on.”

    Cleveland is extremely fortunate that The Sculpture Center selected to feature, simultaneously, these two astounding exhibitions. They are intriguing, expressively intricate, often whimsical and undeniably beautiful. Anyone who appreciates the aesthetic inclinations of delicacy and detail will thoroughly enjoy visiting the Sculpture Center this season. The Sculpture Center is located on 1834 East 123rd Street, open Wednesday through Friday 10 am-4pm, Saturday noon-4pm, and by prior appointment.

    Tina Cassara and David Sapp: Threads, Lines, Traces closed on October 30th.

    Japanese Contemporary Fiber Sculpture in Miniature is on view through December 18th. For more information see http://www.sculpturecenter.org.


    Dr. Amber Stitt is a historian of the art of the American nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an author and instructor in the Cleveland Museum of Art's Department of Distance Learning, and a professor of art history at the Cleveland Institute of Art.  View more articles by Amber Stitt.


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