Review: FABRICation at the Academy Art Museum By Mary McCoy

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Take your time when you go to see FABRICation, on view through July 9 at the Academy Art Museum. If you don’t allow yourself to stand and look and enjoy getting thoroughly lost in the colorful, animated details of its large-scale fabric artworks, you’ll lose out on savoring their intricacy, vibrant energy and thoughtful ruminations.

Erin E. Castellan, “Window,” acrylic, latex paint, thread, fabric

The show’s co-curators, Reni Gower and Kristy Deetz, are both university professors steeped in the history and practices of art. Their work and the work of the show’s other five artists is directly informed by art history—from Western art’s tradition of realism to 20th-century explorations of abstraction and cultural commentary. But all of it has to do with fabric and how the slow, physical process of creating art is becoming almost an alien activity in our fast-paced digital world.

Virginia Derryberry conjures complex stories about identity and the stages of life’s passages in her enormous quilts in which she combines traditional quilting, embroidery and trapunto with drawing and found object art, in this case actual dresses painstakingly stitched in place.

For Rachel Hayes, abstract painting and minimalism were the point of departure for her large fabric constructions. Her quilt, “Making Modern,” stitched from colored rectangles of fabric and vinyl chosen for their varying amounts of transparency, is bold and eye-catching, and its nuances entice you into looking closer. This is one of her smaller pieces and it’s worth googling photos of her large, outdoor works to see how deftly she uses “feminine” fabrics on a monumental scale to explore how power and fragility may be joined in a potent balance.

The exhibit offers a wide range of approaches. Susan Iverson’s graphic abstractions hand-woven into richly-hued strips of wool hung side-by-side form a quiet meditation on the lush trees and warm sunlight around her secluded woodland home. In contrast to her careful craftsmanship and formal presentation, Natalie Smith’s mixed media “Future Future Garden” is loose and casual. An amiable study of the process of bridging abstraction with the materiality of found objects, its simple brushstrokes painted in gray and green on unstretched canvas form a grid of small crosses that suddenly dissolve into a web of string and bits of cloth mimicking the brushstrokes yet occupying real space.

Reni Gower, “Fragments Encircled,” mixed media

In “Relativity Veil #1,” Deetz makes mischief with the Western painting tradition of realistic illusion. From a distance, her two wood panels appear to be wrapped with crinkled fabric but close-up, the illusion disintegrates into dense networks of small brushstrokes. To rub in the joke, she left a rectangle of bare wood in the center of one panel and a tromp l’oeil painting reproducing the same woodgrain in the center of the other.

In two exuberant, candy-bright works, Gower takes the energy of Abstract-Expressionism, Color Field painting and Pop Art to extremes with overlapping strips of canvas, cheesecloth, nylon and aluminum screens, plastic and anti-slip rug pads thickly brushed, splashed and printed with brilliant shades of acrylic paint. Artists such as Hans Hoffman, Jackson Pollock, Kenneth Noland and Jasper Johns leap to mind but these pieces are veritable explosions of color and activity. So densely layered that their physical depth is almost sculptural, they offer a host of shifting perspectives. It’s fun to peer at them from different angles and see the changing relationships of the intricate, colorful details dancing across their variously solid and see-through layers of materials.

There’s a feminist aspect to this show in that all its artists are women and all work with fabric, but be advised, this is just a sub theme underlying and supporting the real thrust of the exhibit. Fully aware of the stigma, “women’s work,” historically attached to anything to do with cloth or sewing, these artists craftily play with concepts of the feminine as intuitive, nurturing and reflective in contrast to the cold rationality of our current technological culture. Their works are as large and bold as the work of the male artists who predominate in our museums, yet what they are communicating is not so much about gender and marginalization as about how art can be an antidote to the loss of our own humanity as we careen into constant immersion in the virtual world of digital technology.

Erin E. Castellan delights in the freedom she finds in saturating fabric with acrylic and latex paint highlighted with hand-stitching. Her two highly tactile works owe much to the accidental effects of the energetic gestures and free-flowing colors that the Abstract Expressionists reveled in, but to invite close and detailed observation, she augments the painterly patterns of drips and textures with dense patches of embroidery which pucker and pleat the cloth to hilarious effect.

The accompanying wall text reveals Castellan’s interest in “slow viewing,” a practice as essential to understanding and enjoying art as it is to life. In contrast with the passive states our various digital screens encourage, like the other artists in this show, her process of working is one of active experimentation and discovery. By being fully engaged with her physical materials and the effects they produce, she hones her awareness of how colors make us feel, about how certain shapes and gestures can reference landscape, human figures, physical sensation or emotion, and how art can take us into realms where it becomes possible to contemplate the complex relationships underlying the richness of human existence.

 

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Letters to Editor

  1. Barbara Harrison says:

    I confess I am clueless as to the location of the Academy Art Museum. I read the article twice and still am no nearer knowing the location.

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