REVIEW | Material Gestures: Cut, Weave, Sew, Knot

Anne Wilson_Mourning Cloth (drape)_1992.jpg

Material Gestures: Cut, Weave, Sew, Knot Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Material Gestures: Cut, Weave, Sew, Knot, currently on view at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, features the works of a diverse group of artists who embrace, subvert, and rework the ancient mediums of fiber and textiles within contemporary art practice over the past thirty years. Each work reflects individual exploration in varied directions, several with fantastic depth and intensity. How that exploration and my response to it are manifested is left in the careful hands of some of the most innovative and legendary artists in the field – luckily, this exhibition presents both.

Contemporary fiber art is really about as good as it gets. An inviting and intimate media, fiber is an ever-shifting practice that is grounded in the centuries old traditions, forms, and materials of textile production and manipulation. I am able to come to the work already engaged: the media is loaded with connotation – more than I can address here, but certainly personal, collective, and historical. I already have a tacit and emotional understanding for the cloth that is launched as soon as I view the work. I can simulate the feeling of the fabric between my fingers, I can conjure how it smells and moves, and I have experiences to undeniably draw from and build upon. Materials that can envelope us as quickly or impact us as deeply as textiles are simply very few, and it is that ability to reach me on multiple levels that draws me in.

What is particularly interesting in this exhibit, is that almost all the artists are aware of and building on that foundation (my intimate relationship with the traditional forms of fiber), but are also deeply rooted in the process of questioning traditions, definitions of craft, and evaluating process and methodology. By challenging the delineations within the expanse of contemporary practice in art, craft, and design, each artist thoughtfully explores conceptual notions beyond the reach typically associated with the field in the larger scope of the fine art conversation. Though I have never felt it necessary to make the distinction between craft or fine art in relation to several media, fibers being one, I am interested in work that straddles both and is distinctly and simultaneously successful in each arena – as are several on view in Material Gestures: Cut, Weave, Sew, Knot.


I choose to begin with the pivotal fiber artist Claire Zeisler, a genius and a formalist, who began with functional, flat, loomed weavings, but later abandoned the loom to create three-dimensional free-form fiber sculptures of increasing scale and complexity. In doing so, she helped transform the designation of the two-dimensional realm of weaving and fiber into the three-dimensional identify of sculpture. Untitled, 1988 is an excellent example of the artist’s drive to create non-functional fiber sculptures that deviate from the traditional confines of weaving as well as redefine the character of fiber by restoring the material to its natural state. Considered one of Zeisler’s trademarks, this work actively exploits the inherent qualities of thread through its emphasis on knotting and wrapping, as well as the free-falling, unwoven strands of fiber ballooning toward me like an inflating belly. Zeisler manipulates piles of raw, delicate strands strategically coated/dipped in either black or gold into substantially knotted piles, and in doing so, she lays out an interesting, blatant and actual side-by-side comparison. A dichotomy, perhaps, of her desire to give threads a volume (an opportunity to become occupiers of space) and then, subsequently, a dissolution of the misconception that fiber art is merely tantamount to utilitarian craft.


Another pioneer is the incomparable Sheila Hicks, represented here with Dervish, 2011, a work made by weaving and twisting a special stainless steel fiber that the artist developed with Bridgestone Tire Corporation. As with Zeisler, there is a pattern of wanting evident in Hicks’ work that emanates from the artist into the work and is mirrored back to me as the viewer. I desire to touch the surface, to run my fingers over the texture to see if it is compatible, to see which areas are smooth and which cause hesitation. Because I cannot, I work my way from the edge to the center with just my eyes, through each row of woven brown thread and converging to a finite, center point – a place where the dense lines move and intersect into a form of drawing that expands into three dimensions. I am disappointed that the elegant structure, the undulating surface, and duplicitous shapes have to come to an end.

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Chicago-based gallery artist Anne Wilson, represented with Mourning Cloth (drape), 1992-93 and Dispersions (nos. 29 & 31), 2014, ascends the materiality of fiber and contributes emotive ideas related to the body, loss, and memory to her works. Mourning Cloth (drape), pictured above, hangs on a single nail, important enough to suspend yet wrought with a past it cannot escape – covered in hair, stains and obvious surface repairs, it is intrinsically human. Its placement on an expansive wall combined with its muted palette further invokes a sadness the title suggests. Dispersions begin with heirloom white damask cloth with holes or tears caused by use, and Wilson sews open the flaw with thread and hair to form a perfect, sculptural circle. Piercing the decorative, timeworn cloth with exact precision, the circles' edges softly disperse with a vibrant but delicate ripple effect. These works strongly resonates as a record of mortality: from the torn edges of the cloth that emulates what feels like a burial shroud, to the infectious and spreading wound, to the framed presentation behind glass. These three pieces are the strongest works of the exhibition.


Also engaged in the notions of memory, Chicago- based Karen Reimer presents a union of concept and craft with her sculptural textile Endless Set #1399, 2012. Originally made for Gallery 400, Endless Set (begun in 2007) consists of pillowcases made from a number of fabric scraps equal to a prime number. Appliquéd on top of this patchwork are the corresponding white fabric numerals. The depicted numeral measures as many inches tall as the number itself. Thus, the white fabric number 7 is seven inches high and sewn onto a backing made of seven pieces of fabric. As the dimensions of the numbers exceed the dimensions of the pillowcase Reimer folds and layers the number form back and forth across the surface, gradually obscuring the patchwork. The larger the prime number, the more minimal in color and yet more sculptural the works become. For Endless Set #1399, Reimer crafted a pillowcase of the prime number, 1399, closest to the linear perimeter of Gallery 400's largest gallery, 1400 inches (116 2/3 feet). Four white fabric numerals (scaled to 1399 inches) are folded and sewn down to the 30 by 20 inch dimensions of a standard pillowcase to become a stunning sculptural form compressing the dimensions of the exhibition space into a thick, dense object. Fatigued by the very thickness that makes this work effective, the center of the stack sags beneath its own weight – indicative of both the space and the burden it represents. It is an interesting investigation of material, space, and intervention condensed into a substantial sculptural object.

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Offering a glimpse into the latest fiber-based interrogations with her large woven textile Deep-Sea Oil Prospects: Northern Gulf of Mexico, 2014, artist Heather MacKenzie masterfully utilizes the textile as a lens to interrogate material and the abstract. Subverting the expectations of femininity, Mackenzie’s works are (in the artist’s words) “acts of endurance” that seek to expose, interpret and reveal histories, landscapes, and philosophies of mortality. Through the visible and physical accumulated repetitive labor of weaving, echoed in the geologic and topographic spaces MacKenzie seeks to translate, I am overwhelmed by the sheer size of the work. Symbols are bound within the layers, obscuring the original image and further blurring the landscapes they are meant to provide clarity for. Successful, abstract and haunting, MacKenzie makes the inaccessible into a conscious object that I willingly get lost in.

Though a fan of interdisciplinary artist Kiki Smith, who is represented with Untitled, 1992, her piece feels a bit stale and lackluster in comparison to the others on view. Composed of paper and string, it is meant to thwart my expectation of textiles; yet, unlike almost all of the other works (some from much earlier) it feels dated and disengaged. Equally as uninspired are the works of Interdisciplinary German-Egyptian artist Susan Hefuna who creates textile works that investigate of the nature of structures, networks, and veiled visibility both in subject matter as well as more literal mechanisms in her actual work. Inspired by these networks, her recent drawings such as Building B, 2010 create grids of connected dots with ink and pencil on multiple layers of tracing paper, which are then sewn together. The outcome loosely evokes embroidery, but I fail to see the significance of the threads in relation to either subject or technique – resulting in rather bland final works that seem out of place.


Last, but certainly not least, two artists who have been engaged in global textiles throughout their careers round out the exhibit: Richard Tuttle with Indonesian Textile on Custom-made Mount, 2004 and Italian artist Alighiero Boetti with Immaginando Tutto, (Imagine Everything), 1979. Though not the most stirring works for me, both should be celebrated for their poetic ability to elevate what are often considered humble materials or processes to substantial comments on the vitality and importance of the field.

The artworks presented in Material Gestures: Cut, Weave, Sew, Knot reflect appreciation and understanding of the unique properties of the materials and allow the material to dictate the form rather than subordinate the media to any preconceptions; thus, I am able to consider both the inherent properties of the materials and their manipulation in correlation to the concepts put forth. Ripe with ideas and masterfully crafted, these few examples are indicative of a material and field that cannot and should not be ignored.

Material Gestures: Cut, Weave, Sew, Knot, open through December 23, 2014 at Rhona Hoffman Gallery includes works from Alighiero Boetti, Susan Hefuna, Sheila Hicks, Heather Mackenzie, Karen Reimer, Kiki Smith, Richard Tuttle, Anne Wilson, and Claire Zeisler. For more information, visit: To view the show, the gallery is located at 118 North Peoria Street, Chicago, Illinois 60607.

Images courtesy Rhona Hoffman Gallery (from top to bottom): Anne Wilson, Mourning Cloth (drape), 1992-93, hair, thread, reconstructed cloth, 72 x 32 x 2 inches; Claire Zeisler, Untitled, 1988, hemp and acrylic paint, 19 x 15.25 x 6 inches each, 19 x 33.25 x 6 inches overall; Sheila Hicks, Dervish, 2011, Steel, linen, wool, 16 x 16 inches; Anne Wilson, Dispersion (no. 31), 2014, Thread, hair, cloth, white steel frame, 23.25 x 23.25 x 1.5 inches & Dispersion (no. 29), 2014, Thread, hair, cloth, white steel frame, 23.25 x 23.25 x 1.5 inches; Karen Reimer, Endless Set #1399, 2012, sewn fabric on platform, 27 x 18.5 x 29 inches, fabric, 86 x 60 inches, platform; Heather MacKenzie, Deep-Sea Oil Prospects: Northern Gulf of Mexico, 2014, Cotton, amoco-surplus polyolefin, steel, aluminum, seismic reflection data, 56 x 121 inches; and Richard Tuttle, Indonesian Textile on Custom-made Mount, 2004, Kamben Cepuk/Wrap-around Cloth, Nusa Penida or Bali, early 20th century, Handwoven cotton in the weft, ikat technique, 33 x 29 x 5 inches

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