Innovative Expressions (in Fiber)
I am recommending this exhibition because it features exceptional works that happen to be classified as fiber art. I don’t want this to escape the attention of so many people who will appreciate the range and quantity of remarkable works currently on display at the Muskegon Museum of Art. Now in its final days, Innovators and Legends: Generations in Textiles and Fibers, includes seventy-five works by fifty artists, who represent a broad range of approaches to fiber as a medium.
True to the exhibition’s title, there are numerous examples that employ traditional techniques with unexpected results, as well as examples that formally suggest traditional fiber-based media, but are made with unconventional materials. Jason Pollen’s silk organza quilt Wounded/63 for example, appears to be a suspended shimmering watercolor, due to its translucency and near weightlessness.
Fiber art of the 1960s and 70s was situated at the cusp of postmodernism. While much of it was still informed by early 20th century Modernism, second-wave feminism made notable contributions to its development. Feminist artists conscientiously mined the annals of history for genres of aesthetic expression that were ostensibly relegated to women. The appeal was twofold, it allowed contemporary artists to celebrate the hitherto ‘invisible’ artistic contributions of women, and it was a medium that was not mired in phallocentric institutional traditions. In other words, fiber art had the potential to liberate the artist from the baggage of conventional fine art media, while allowing the possibility to connect with a fertile history of vernacular craft and decorative arts.
To be sure, fiber as a medium offers some unique formal qualities, but there are also historical associations that seem rife with potential for political, or more cerebral expression. There are for example, many pieces in this exhibition that effectively employ stitching as gesture, some resulting in beautifully complex textures and pattern. Michael Olszewski’s black triptych is completely non-reflective, allowing the viewer to fully discern the detail of each palimpsestic surface.
Weavings Remembered by Sandra Brownlee is a finely woven narrow panel, which reads like a remarkably spare pictorial timeline of textiles from history. Over six feet long, the format also suggests a scroll, one of the earliest formats for books. Bhakti Ziek’s woven panels Continuum, and Walking, present distinct bands of visual information that appear to be storyboards, recording a sampling of external perception and internal thought.
Not all the work is cerebral or esoteric. Nick Cave’s Sound Suits are the most notable of the seven garment, or garment-inspired inclusions. Gerhardt Knodel’s installation Do You See What I See?, deliberately suggests a carnival shooting gallery with stuffed fringed figures that flip on hinges. The allusion to an arcade is amusing, and the craftsmanship is excellent, but even if these were not apparent, the overall arrangement of form and color is remarkably well-executed.
There are a number of artists whose works have a strong narrative element, including Mary Bero’s whimsical and colorful images, reminiscent of The Hairy Who, or Ikon, by Geary Jones (also the curator of this exhibition).
Fiber art in particular can fall into two genres about which I feel ambivalent: those that are very self-referentially FIBER, or those that could have been produced in nearly any other medium, but happen to be executed in fiber. The former can be too precious about the medium, and the latter can fail to capitalize on the inherent qualities of the medium.
Among those that I most appreciated in Innovators and Legends, were large-scale works that tempered labor-intensive process with restraint, enabling an objective appreciation of the craft, without succumbing to novelty. Pauline Verbeek-Cowart‘s Kuba Lace, Sherri Smith’s Great Cosmic Census, and Piper Shepard’s Dome, achieve this balance by limiting the palette to a single color.
After the exhibition closes in Muskegon, it will travel to Kansas and New York, where I hope it will attract the attention it deserves.
Muskegon Museum of Art through March 17
296 W. Webster Avenue Muskegon, Michigan 49440
Museum Hours: Wednesday, Friday, Saturday 10AM-4:30PM , Thursdays 10AM-8PM
Admission $7, $5 (students), free to children & MMA members