Thread Lines at The Drawing Center
Fibers, from the stitched to the felted to the woven, is receiving a healthy amount of attention from curators and institutions. Exhibitions highlighting the historical vanguards to contemporary artists working within the bounds of the medium are spurring a base of interested viewers from the art world to fiber art communities. These recent shows also raise some interesting questions that are old and new. Watching who covers the show, how it is discussed and where the conversation seems to hover over the next few months will be interesting as shows like Thread Lines at The Drawing Center in New York which continues until December 14, 2014 and the Tate Modern opens with Richard Tuttle: I Don’t Know . The Weave of Textile Language on October 14, 2014 become major headlines if not beacons to artists and individuals working in fibers and textiles.
In the last few months, a popular magazine dedicated to fiber arts posted on Facebook an image of a contemporary artist who makes incredible installations using paper and the post asked it's audience if this was fiber art? The post was taken down from the feed but the responses to the post were without fail, a fiber community responding with number one, of course, by definition paper is fiber-based and secondly, most importantly, who cares about defining it if it is inspiring to artists and creatives working with fiber-related materials or otherwise? This triggered a awareness. How great is the need by parties to not only define but confine the relationship of material and process? Is the separation between the fiber art community and the contemporary art world in a state not being properly illuminated? Why does there seem to be such an isolationist policy at times? Whether this question on social media was an attempt to settle an internal debate at the magazine or an attempt to pull out voices from the fibrous woodwork, who knows, but there are some prickly boundaries that are dated and isolating to the fiber community. Exhibitions such as Thread Lines and Richard Tuttle show at the Tate (which include public workshops in weaving and fiber processes are being held in conjunction with Tuttle's show), reaffirm the contemporarily role of textiles and fibers in the hands of artists working freely without boundaries.
The Drawing Center's curator Joanna Kleinberg Romanow writes in the Thread Lines catalogue essay that "textile's connection to craft and the domestic sphere persist but less as a source of aesthetic or ideological debate than a vehicle for personal expression". This statement sets a tone for the bridge between trail blazing artists such as Lenore Tawney, Sheila Hicks, Louise Bourgeois and Beryl Korot to a younger generation of artists such as William J. O'Brien, Drew Shiflett, Sam Moyer and Jessica Rankin. Each artist is distinctive both in their approach and their career trajectories. It is important to note that The Drawing Center exhibit is not about defining fiber artists or textile art , it is about various artists who use sewing, embroidery, knitting and weaving to draw or assemble. In this exhibition, Process sits at the table as well as Craft (yes, with a capital P and C!).
For example, artist William J. O'Brien most known for his abstract ceramic works and works on paper who also had a recent major survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago is one of the nine contemporary artists featured in Thread Lines. His stunning cut felt shapes stitched onto a neutral background represent a fraction of his diverse oeuvre of materials and processes that make up his work as a whole. O'Brien's use of the felt material is deftly executed into an array of positive and negative shapes that push and pull the viewer in an energetic frenzy akin to Matisse. He is not an artist solely dedicated to textiles or fibers but he is distinguished in an article titled, The Maker: William J. O'Brien in the January 2014 issue of Art in America, that he is an artist whose work "has maintained an affinity with the 'maker' trend, in which craft aesthetics, handmade approaches and the sheer physicality of art-making surpass theoretical and academic frameworks"*.
It is a sheer hunch that it is the 'maker' aspect that is where the celestial energy is gathering around and leading to more shows featuring works in textiles, thread, and other fiber-related materials. In a city with megaton shows like Jeff Koons's retrospective at the Whitney representing the art-army-made production level, this show is a welcomed contrast not only in concept but in nature alone. This is why the art world is such a fascinating and contradictary arena for creativity.
Also, included in the exhibit are ongoing performances by Anne Wilson that are part of a collective site-specific body of work she has been developing since 2008. At The Drawing Center, the columns of the space are wound with yarn to create a warp of vibrant colors. Wilson seeks to emphasize the laborious and repetitive time-consuming action involved in what is the very first step in the process of weaving. Wilson activates the space in bold balance to the rest of the show's installation.
There is an interesting history that is not part of the show at The Drawing Center but bellies some of the history that the show briefly alludes to in the catalogues essay referring to "pioneers who first unraveled the distinction between textile and art". Louise Bourgeois is undoubtably a favorite and an inspiration however her history in relation to the fiber artists of her time was a tense relationship. In 1969, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized an unusual exhibit for the time titled Wall Hangings radically seeking to situate the selected artists working in fiber into the "high art" category. Louise Bourgeois was commissioned by the magazine Craft Horizons to write a review, in fact ,what was the only review of the show if that isn't enough of a snub from the art world. Bourgeois horrified the curators and shocked the magazine editors stating that the works, "rarely liberate themselves from decoration"**. A decade later Bourgeois stated that "when you work in the school of abstraction, you have to avoid...the decorative"**. It is well known that Bourgeois was all too aware of the tight patriarchal critical and theoretical framework that left her own work vulnerable to be dismissed as feminine craft or decorative. Sheila Hicks was a prominent artist in the Wall Hangings exhibit as was Leonre Tawney.
Perhaps Bourgeois should not be held in any negative light because of the general discrimination in the art world at the time toward artists working in fibers and textiles and she needed to do what she needed to do to keep her work competitive with her target audience. Still, the history on the whole needs some acknowledgement not necessarily on the part of The Drawing Center but somewhere soon. The forces and associations that loomed over Hicks, Bourgeois or Jack Lenor Larson are not completely extinguished. Perhaps under the label maker and in light of " the sheer physicality of art-making " to use Art in America's Jamilee Polson Lacy's verbiage, the tensions of craft and the art world can be put to bed however keep in mind this is okay because the making is so physical?
I would not call making a trend. In summarizing it can get complicated choosing the right terminology. There is hesitation to use the word process because of the history that assumes, but all that mess aside, this show takes the whole matter for what it is and appreciates the making and process. Considering the number of artists using embroidery, sewing, knitting, crochet, weaving and the list goes on, it is wonderfully appropriate that The Drawing Center put together this show drawing parallels between the mark-making of the thread and other more traditional mark-making tools.
*Jamilee Polson Lacy, "The Maker: William J. O'Brien," Art in America, January 24, 2014, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/previews/the-maker-william-j-obrien-/
** Elissa Auther, "String Felt Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art" (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), xi
on view until December 14, 2014
The Drawing Center
35 Wooster Street, New York, NY 10013
For the ongoing performance schedule of Anne Wilson's To Cross (Walking New York) at The Drawing Center, click here
To view the catalog, The Drawing Center's Drawing Papers, Volume 118, featuring an essay by Joanna Kleinberg Romanow
Below is an Art 21 video excerpt on Jessica Rankin from 2010 whose work is featured in the Thread Lines exhibit.