Editor's note: The Tarble Arts Center provided source material to Resource Library for the following article. The essay was reprinted in Resource Library on September 26, 2006 with the permission of the Tarble Arts Center and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the article or essay, please contact the Tarble Arts Center directly through either this phone number or web address:
The Body In Fiber
August 19 - October 8, 2006
This exhibition examines the relationship between the extremes of scale in fiber arts and the participating artists' fascination with the fiber surface, regardless of scale. The unifying theme is a reference to the human form. The exhibition features the work of twelve artists from throughout the United States.
Guest curator Ann Coddington, on the Eastern Illinois University Art faculty, selected artists whose work references the human body through narrative works -- often domestic and psychological investigations -- through extremes of scale. Traditional fiber materials and techniques are represented -- loom weaving, felting, needlework, knitting -- but the approaches are anything but traditional. And many of the artists use less conventional fiber materials, such as the stretch fabric and balloons that makes up the installation by Amy Honchell (Chicago) or the stapled plastic sculptural forms from Jerry Bleem (Chicago). The installation by Judi Ross (Champaign, IL) even incorporates sound and video.
Also represented by installations are Jodi Birdwell (Urbana, IL) and Barbara Kendrick (Champaign, IL), both of whom use found objects. More intimate works include embroidered portraits by Darrel Morris (Chicago) and embroidered landscapes from Tom Lundberg (Fort Collins, CO). The beaded work by Missy Stevens (Washington, CT) also depicts portraits and landscapes.
Works at actual life-size are the knitted super hero costumes by Mark Newport (Phoenix, AZ), and the resin hands by Lisa Hart (Atlanta, GA) encrusted with actual butterfly wings and snakeskin. Larger than life are the loomed portraits by Lia Cook (Oakland, CA) -- one 13 feet high-and the subtle felt wall reliefs by Joan Livingstone (Chicago, IL).
In the exhibition catalogue essay, Shannon Stratton states: "The exhibition...assembles a group of artists whose work in fiber illustrates the connection between fiber, accumulation, and fragmentation of self. Individually they might explore issues of identity, psychology, sensuality and/or memory, but it is through their collective investigations of 'body' that their work collectively magnifies the paradox of the hypermodern, protean self." For Stratton, these are artists who "...explore the telling of experience through methodologies that are dependent on accumulative, action based processes..."and "...of small parts: stitches/marks, warp and weft, and found objects."
Artists Joan Livingstone and Amy Honchell will talk about their work at the Tarble on September 28, 2006 7pm. A reception at 6pm will precede the lecture. The public is invited.
This project is co-sponsored with the EIU Art Department as part of the new Currents series focusing on contemporary art and is funded in part by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.
Artist statements from the exhibition:
"we must not let the paths of desire become overgrown"
Catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition:
Reconstructive Surgery: Re-imaging the Body in Fiber
by Shannon Stratton
"I construct myself continually and I construct you, and you do the same. And the construction lasts as long as the material of our feelings doesn't crumble and as long as the cement of our will holds."
- Luigi Pirandello
Subjectivity, or the self, has been the most persistent and compelling of problems for the modern era. Captivating theorists from Nietzsche through to Deleuze, the self is an ultimately debatable concept, considered by many modern theorists to be a necessary illusion rather than a fixed and isolated entity. When post-modernism worked to dismantle the empirical, the detached tone of objectivity had been intentionally exchanged for the subjective, multi-vocal narrative as a challenge to the traditions of empiricist history writing. But this new multi-vocal and narrative standard has also caused a fracture. With the door propped open to fluid ideas of experience and identity, and otherwise closed to the concept of "truth," subjectivity has become prone to being what Robert Jay Lifton has coined "protean," after Proteus, the Greek shape-shifting sea-god: ultimately unfixed, fluid and potentially fragmented, and cause for some unprecedented abstraction of self.
With, as Rosalind Krauss said, "the emphasis [now] on interpretation [and] on reception", our accounts have moved from questions of truth (the empiricist's obsession) to questions of the subjective and performative. This emphasis on the performative has produced art practices that explore the telling of experience through methodologies that are dependant on accumulative, action based processes -- whether that be taken literally as "performance art" or more broadly as artworks which rely on the gestural or what critic Kathryn Hixson describes as "the accumulation of details." Contemporary drawing and sculpture practices are particular to this accumulative strategy and manifest themselves in pixilation -- wholes that are comprised of many small parts.
Contemporary artists working in fiber materials, whether manifested in drawing, sculpture or textiles, are ideal examples of this kind of performative accumulation in action. Fiber mediums lend themselves perfectly to accumulative action as the results are invariably accretions of small parts: stitches/marks, warp and weft, and found objects. These small parts or fragments that construct a whole illustrate the kind of protean self that post-modernism has generated, and since fiber has traditionally been given to intimate, bodily associations, that it lends itself well to exploring somatic territory is of no surprise.
The exhibition The Body in Fiber at the Tarble Arts Center assembles a group of artists whose work in fiber illustrates the connection between fiber, accumulation and fragmentation of self. Individually they might explore issues of identity, psychology, sensuality and/or memory, but it is through their shared investigations of 'body' that their work collectively magnifies the paradox of the hypermodern, protean self.
Joan Livingstone, Amy Honchell and Jerry Bleem work in both accumulative gestures and accumulation of structures. Their sculptures have an uncanny resemblance to organs, while remaining resolutely abstract through their hybridity of form. Livingstone's felt Migrations (2004-2005) combine elements from plant life, architecture and mapping while Honchell's nylon intervention, True Skin is Highly Vascular and Sensitive (2002), utilizes brightly colored objects from the pop culture landscape. Jerry Bleem's sculptures Because I could not stop for Death-/He kindly stopped for me-/The Carriage held but just Ourselves-/And Immortality (Emily Dickinson) (2000-2002), are fastidiously stapled shapes that are partially concealed stamps, film, fish scales or other collected materials that construct deceivingly furry surfaces that waver between coral reef and ossified lung. All of Bleem's sculptures introduce the idea of the protean body well, particularly Because I could not stop for death... due to its multiplied parts, constituted of many parts, that appear to have been cut from a once unified whole. His found objects bring with them their own fragmented histories and Bleem reassembles them with a kind of adamant sensitivity by way of thousands of staples. That this DIY surgery would produce such formal beauty is not surprising. Bleem has fortified the otherwise ordinary, delicate and vulnerable, reasserting the body -- the psyche's -- resilience by way of sheer persistence. The growing and contracting nature of the resulting sculpture imagines a kind of reinforced nature, the staples less plastic surgery than minute buttresses.
In Joan Livingstone's Migrations, we witness a cycle of reuse and regeneration. Her reassembled felt fragments suggest both skins and maps, splayed open to view with their tight sutures recording paths across a physical landscape. As reconstructed sheaths, they imagine their absent interior, the revisionist nature of piece-work suggesting the changes the body is subject to in a lifetime, physically, emotionally and psychologically. As the pieces drift towards the edges we witness the clearing of a slate or the healing of a metaphoric dermis. Migrations show themselves to be a palimpsest more self-healing than self-obliterating, by leaving a clean page on which to re-inscribe, and an uncharted territory to explore anew.
Amy Honchell's sculptures are perhaps an inadvertent and auspicious expression during a time of increasingly contentious issues surrounding cloning, stem cell research, reproductive rights and the human genome; her sanitized "organs" acting as a grotesque and comic reminder of the collusion between plastic surgery and popular culture and the conceits of science and art.
Her previous installations have grouped fragmented and re-stitched body-elements into a series of synaptic shapes made from both neutral and brightly colored nylons, fishnets, various toy balls, hoops and embellishments. These sculptures are related to their surrounding architecture, stretched and strained between walls and fixtures, ceiling and floor and occasionally left to puddle. The results have the appearance of monstrous neuro-pathways and muscle tissue, bloated beyond proportion into pop-art ornamentations. The plebeian human body then inhabits this ludicrous one, experiencing architecture as a body itself, while ultimately being dwarfed by culture's hubris.
Jodi Birdwell's Umbilica (DATE) creates another body/architecture relationship that connects feminized furnishings to frames camouflaged on the gallery wall. Thin slivers of yarn relate these two units, disappearing between drywall, pom-poms and fake-fur, and creating a fetishized environment where the absent female body is palpable in its apparent reduction to the uncanny footstool. The strange remains have a surrealist air, an abstraction of femininity where the body seems to have undergone some absurd transmogrification, left precariously connected to and potentially dependant on it's domestic surroundings.
In their surreal amalgamations of landscape and the body, Barbara Kendrick's Daphne (2006) and Judi Ross's Aciano (2005) acknowledge nature's acculturation and the body's subsequent estrangement from it. Although seemingly romantic, landscape art has been symbolic of its own subordination to tourism, nationalism and imperialism, a sign of the domestication and sublimation of the wild and sensuous. Kendrick and Ross revisit the landscape as a site for desire, a longing for utopia that depicts the landscape as fantastical.
Kendrick still concedes the landscape and nature to be a commodity by dressing a high-back wood chair in fashionable manufactured wood-grain; but in leaving this strange body turned and focused on a view, she depicts frustrated desire. Rather than facing a window, the chair's 'gaze' yields to the gallery wall. In previous installation, Kendrick turned the chair on an evasive and expressionist 'wild, blue yonder,' a drawing of rippling water or a striated sky deceivingly rendered in synthetic, blue hair. Either revelation simply stares back at the absurdly fabulous chair, resulting in a cyclical gaze that defies resolution. Here, veneer sustains the fantasy of the natural, but will cheat the ravages of time.
Nature is an increasingly debatable concept. Culture's dominion over the natural, between the manipulations of science and aesthetics, has left the possibilities for nature to be transcendental nearly impossible. Ross's Aciano dares to re-explore this territory, mining nature and the landscape for its powerful, Romantic resonance by fictionalizing and freezing it, re-situating nature as an intoxicating fetish. This world is still a refuge, but with the addition of sound and video, Aciano is blatantly technologized, wired for the kind of mediated experience that contemporary, capitalist culture is accustomed to.
In a bid to reconcile man with the natural world, Lisa Hart's collages are nostalgic curios, collections of the natural world in a neo-Victorian ponderation of the continued fragility of being animal. Working with animal hair, snake skins and butterfly wings, Hart's constructions recall the memento mori traditions of human hair funeral wreaths and jewelry. These fragmentary animal remains act as symbolic surrogates for a missing and resolved whole, the finished collage, quietly reverent of the lost body.
Key to subjectivity after post-modernism is the concept of fractured narrative. Recent drawing practices have demonstrated this drift by presenting the whole story in a series of vignettes or parts, their lack of continuity creating an abstraction of biography that allows the viewer to move within the narrative, ultimately writing in their own meaning. Artists like Darrel Morris, Tom Lundberg, and Missy Stevens all create piecemeal narratives in their work, their choice of fiber as a vehicle, a necessity in conveying a kind of personal depth, meditative elaboration, narrative embellishment and accumulative meaning.
Tom Lundberg and Missy Stevens produce a heavily worked surface that Stevens self-referentially calls "thread painting." These richly embroidered pictures have a kind of depth of color that is heightened by the accumulative nature of the thread line; like pointillist paintings, their work coheres and breaks apart before our eyes. Both artists create dreamlike imagery that recalls surrealist painting and rebus games, pieces of a narrative puzzle that come back to us in splinters when we just awake.
Less mysterious, but equally compelling are Darrel Morris's stitched drawings and assiduous embroideries. The work portions out memory as fractured tales of pathos and awkwardness, at turns funny and deeply sad. These vignettes can function cathartically, exposing the inequity and callousness that peppers our world, and although illustrating the most painful of interactions between us, Morris renders them with humanity.
Although not illustrations, so to speak, Mark Newport's superhero costumes have a similarly humane approach to addressing power and powerlessness. Embellishing on a pre-existing, cultural narrative about the ultimate man, Mark Newport's embroidered trading cards, comic books and handicraft costumes domesticate the inflated ideal of the heroic, and realign the everyday man -- father and husband -- with the role of local hero. His knit outfits hang on the wall limply, open to the viewer to metaphorically inhabit and become the comfy everyday-hero that is conspicuously absent.
In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittengenstein wrote that "the human body was the best picture of the soul," a statement that has interesting implications for the hypermodern body. What picture of the human body do we have today? A digitized body, a pixilated body, a cloned and shape-shifting body, a manic-depressive and medicated, fragmented and mutilated body? A body in pain to some, poly-vocal liberation to others. A physicality that has been broken into a million pieces, and reassembled into new wholes, only to be broken apart again. This body pictures a soul in disorder.
Lia Cook's weavings re-imagine the body as this constant shattering and reassembly, a million pieces before our eyes, but never a resolved whole. Moving forward and backward towards Voices (2003) and Binary Traces: Blur 3 (2004) there is desire. The images emote a kind of deep desperation for understanding, but the black and white, the warp and weft, keep the eye forever at bay, dangling at the edge of empathy but unable to complete the moment and truly see. Here the eye hangs. The reduction and dissolution of body, of truth, have been reconciled as object and Cook gives us post-modern transcendentalism: we are truly unmoored without context.
As an expression of the modern condition, the artists participating
in The Body in Fiber picture both the disorder and potential of the
fluid and protean, their fragmentations at turns sobering and hopeful. If
this exhibit does indeed illustrate the body in disarray, it also illustrates
it reassembled, acting as both sign and interrogator of the times, while
endeavoring a restoration of the body through methodologies born after postmodernism.
It is through explorations like these that humanity can constantly be reevaluated,
ultimately understanding the complications of being human in both a promising
and perplexing, multifarious world.
1 Lifton, Robert Jay. The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmenation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.
2 Krauss, Rosalind. "We Lost it At the Movies," Art Bulletin Vol. LXXVI, No. 4 (December 1994), pg. 578-580.
4 Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1953, 1958, 1967. pg. 178e.
About the author:
Shannon Stratton was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta,
Canada where she attended the Alberta College of Art and Design for my BFA.
She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in
2003 and where she will complete an MA in Art History Theory and Criticism
in 2007. In 2004 she joined Jonathan Rhodes, Jeff M. Ward and Sonia Yoon
in founding ThreeWalls. Currently she teaches at the School of the Art Institute
of Chicago and Harrington College of Design as well as writing exhibition
essays, criticism and nonfiction.
(above: Lia Cook, Voices, woven cotton, 74 x 55 inches)
(above: Tom Lundberg, Evening Pocket, hand embroidery, 5 1/2 x 4 3/8 inches)
(above: Judi Ross, Aciano, Mixed Media
with video and sound, 20 x 20 feet)
Editor's note: Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Michael Watts, Director, Tarble Arts Center, Eastern Illinois University for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above essay.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Tarble Arts Center at Eastern Illinois University in Resource Library.
Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
© Copyright 2006 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.