We know it’s not a photograph; after all, this is an exhibition of fiber art. But what exactly is it? Only when visitors get close to Constellation—Mana does the work betray its impressive secrets. Artist Kumi Yamashita created this lucid portrait by tactfully wrapping a single line of black sewing thread around hundreds of tiny nails affixed to a wooden panel. Like the hatched and crosshatched lines of an engraving, from a distance the thread metamorphoses into highlights and shadow, delineating volume and form, giving shape to an image strikingly reminiscent of a black and white photograph of a girl. Yamashita’s two works alone were well worth the price of admission (a modest $6), but there was plenty more to see at Extreme Fibers: Textile Icons and the New Edge. With its ambitious title, the show promised to be good, and it did not disappoint.
Extreme Fibers, hosted by the Dennos Museum of Traverse City, MI, this past spring, showcased the surprising versatility of the world of contemporary fiber art. There were quilts here, of course, but also sculpture, basketry, installation, and even video art. These works address varied socially-conscious themes ranging from war, bioengineering, ecology, globalization, urban decay, and consumerism.
About a dozen internationally recognized masters comprise the nucleus of the show. Added to these are a jury-selected group of emerging fiber-artists; a pool of over 300 entries was narrowed down to seventy-nine. In all, visitors experienced 136 works by 79 artists, representing 25 states and several countries: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Norway, Peru, Poland, Taiwan, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
These works mischievously warp our understanding of what might constitute fiber art. Jan Hopkin’s Sturgeon Moon, for example, is a spherical basket woven from the aesthetically beautiful strips of sturgeon skin discarded by fishermen because they are commercially worthless, quietly making the point that monetary value isn’t necessarily the best indicator of something’s worth. Pamela DeTuncq’s gently humorous Flock is a life-sized sculptural installation that portrays a group of adolescents, each preoccupied by a smart phone. The figures wear sheep’s wool gleaned from Idaho sheep, and the work addresses social media’s capacity of inculcating a herd mentality.
Extreme Fibers also showcased the particularly unique capability of fiber art to speak of certain subjects. Sherri Smith’s Mercury, for example, is a strip-woven wall hanging that incorporates satellite imagery from the Messenger space probe. Smith explained that as Messenger orbits Mercury, it captures threads of imagery “like string winding around a ball.” Similarly, Mercury literally threads together an image of the planet, supplying false color, which correspond to the materials present on Mercury’s surface. One of the most conceptually interesting works is Drapery by Kristina Aas, a Norwegian fiber artist who created a digital jacquard weave depicting a hanging veil; it’s a visual pun that recalls the work of Jasper Johns, whose paintings of flags thoroughly confounded any distinction between the signifier and signified. The work of art becomes the thing itself.
A recent addition to the show was Northwood Awakening, the winner of the People’s Choice Award at Art Prize 2015, Grand Rapids’ very popular annual public art fair. The massive PhotoFiber™ quilt, a collaborative work by Steve and Ann Loveless, is a mural-sized four-paneled composite of over forty photographs of a Michigan forest, which, as we read the panoramic image from left to right, morphs from a photographic print into a (slightly) more abstracted conventional quilt. But even the right side of the work, comprised of innumerable small patches of fabric, from a distance, like pixels on a computer screen, magically become a convincingly photographic image.
Extreme Fibers lived up to its ambitious title, pushing our boundaries of what we call fiber art, at least for those of us previously uninitiated. Furthermore, the show makes the emphatic point that fiber arts so naturally and elegantly lend themselves to feisty socially-conscious discourse. Its literal stitching together of divergent fabrics and textures can conjure social and economic associations: the fabric of a pinstriped suit, for example, contrasted with a patch from a denim jacket. In their re-use of discarded material, they’re the perfect conduit for discussions about consumption, recycling, and environmental sustainability. And their innate capacity to re-purpose and re-appropriate fabrics suggests that there’s no reason why a simple quilt couldn’t be every bit as feisty as a combine by Robert Rauschenberg or a readymade by Marcel Duchamp. Although it’s an exhibition of fibers, there’s nothing soft about this show; these works are capable of roughing up our composure in the way that only great art can.
Extreme Fibers was on view at the Dennos Museum through March 6, 2016. The exhibition was sponsored by the Muskegon Museum of Art and curated by Geary Jones. More information (including a complete digital catalogue of the show) can be found on the Dennos Art Museum webpage: http://www.dennosmuseum.org/exhibitions/current/extreme-fibers.html