UNRAVELING THE MARVELOUS
Threads: Fiber Art in the 90's
New Jersey Center for Visual Arts, Summit NJ
through March 2
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by April Kingsley



The thing I love about craft is how often it can amaze me about its making. Nowhere is this more evident than in the work of contemporary fiber artists. Threads: Fiber Art in the 90s, is a fine survey of contemporary fiberwork on view at the New Jersey Center for Visual Arts in Summit, New Jersey. Three curators, Sheila Stone, Alice Dillon, and Sharon Gill chose work by 33 American, Australian, English, Japanese and Korean artists to "celebrate the state of fiber art as an international pursuit." Patricia Malarcher, editor of Surface magazine is the author of the exhibition's catalogue essay.

The most obviously amazing and labor intensive works in the exhibition are the embroideries by Mary Bero, D.R. Wagner, Linda Behar and Scott Rothstein. Some so fine you need a magnifying glass to see them properly. Rothstein has spent 15 years studying the subtleties of line created by twisting threads; the result of which are myriad permutations in three-color abstractions. Ikat weaving, indigo dying, and tapestry weaving in the hands of Jun Yomita, Glen Kaufman, Sara Lindsay, Rebecca Medel, and Laura Foster Nicholson can be equally difficult to produce. The resultant works are so intricate that one is at a loss to figure out how they were made. Computers can help the weaver, particularly with ikat, where the dyeing is done in a predetermined pattern before being woven. (Just think of how difficult it would be to weave a vertical line down the center without a computer.) Kaufman silkscreens photographic imagery and pastes silver leaf onto his fine silk threads, in addition to dying them, prior to weaving his extraordinarily finely woven images (over a hundred silk threads to a warp inch). His subjects are often Japanese buildings viewed through the grid of a multipaned window. His work comments on how constantly a grid or window intervenes between us and our view wherever we are.

Computers make a work like Bhakti Ziek's History of Fabrics: Notebook Pages-Blue Borders, 1996, possible. A computerized jacquard loom and image scanner transformed notebook pages from a graduate textile history course into a six foot high, woven weft-back, double sided cotton meditation on fiber's historical function as recorder and timekeeper. If it had been done completely by hand, given the small size of the letters, it would have taken a lifetime or more. (Ziek weaves on a traditional 16 harness loom for pleasure, when she's away from the computer).

Others seduced by the swiftness of using the new technologies or a prewoven material also find ways to labor intensify and retain the handmade presence. Kiyomi Iwata, for instance, uses wire mesh screening readily available in a hardware store, but then she spends many hours embroidering, gold-leafing, painting, and otherwise embellishing the objects she makes with it. When Lia Cook has finished all of the complex processing that goes into transforming a photographic image of drapery into a exegesis on fabric, its history and meaning, its sensuous nature, and its use in art, the image has literally been compressed into the fabric's weave, and you marvel at how it got there. Installing Cook's work next to Rebecca Medel's light and shimmering screens of barely perceptible fiber brings out the sensuality of both, and of fiber's tactility in general.

Joyce Scott's sculptures made of beads, like Jane Sauer's of knots and Karyl Sisson's of measuring tapes, are in the tour de force category of nonwoven fiberwork along with and Mazakazu Kobayashi's cubic constructions. Kobayashi's incredible linear density is the result of twenty years of studying the tensions of string ten years stretching string in straight lines, ten more loosening it to a parabola.

But the acme of the marvelous in this wonderful exhibition may lie in the mysteries of the fabrication of Jason Pollen's blue Terra Ephemera Series, 1991, and John McQueen's extraordinary Ordinary Orange, 1990. Pollen's work is fused and dyed silk which looks like pebbles and grass, heaven knows how. It seems easy to see how McQueen's vessel was made: the orange peels are tacked to the outside of a gourd with tiny red pegs. But wait a minute. As the peel dried, why didn't it pull out those pegs, and pull away from the gourd and neighboring pieces of peel. The pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, which doesn't seem possible. But then, how did Jo Barker "paint" like an Abstract Expressionist in a weaving or Sara Brennan get that loosely painted, Rothko-like separation between the two planes of her undated, deceptively simple, wool tapestry, Broken Grey Line I?

These craftspeople make painting with oil or welding steel look like such uncomplicated, easy ways of making art.

Copyright ©1997 April Kingsley & REVIEW All Rights Reserved