ESSAY BY SANDRA SIDER

During the 1960s and 1970s, exhibitions in New York City helped to set the national scene for contemporary fiber art. The Museum of Contemporary Crafts, for example, mounted several influential fiber exhibitions under the aegis of its new director, Paul Smith, and New York galleries were exhibiting solo shows of noted fiber artists.  But by the 1980s, fiber art, along with other craft-related media, had largely fallen out of favor. Today, the intense cross-medium juxtaposition and mingling of materials experienced in the 60s and 70s, which have reappeared in the postmodern art world as historical divisions between “craft” and “art,” are disintegrating. Contemporary fiber illustrates the ubiquitous nature of visual art as a trans-cultural phenomenon expressed in a variety of media.

This exhibition focuses on thirty artists living in and near New York City, working primarily in fiber and textile materials or techniques including knitting, crocheting, quilt making, weaving, felt making, rug hooking, embroidery, needlepoint, basketry, and book arts. New York Fiber in the 21st Century features emerging artists beginning to make a name for themselves, as well as mature artists whose work was recognized in the first major wave of New York fiber art in the 60s and 70s.  This exhibition represents the diversity and vibrancy of fiber in an era that increasingly values the handmade in art and the inherent possibilities of mundane materials. More than one-third of the artists in New York Fiber repurpose textiles and other domestic products, or incorporate found objects, including paper with text, in their pieces.

Six artists—Cummings, Curran, Koenigsberg, Logothetis, Puerta, and Sklar-Weinstein—made new work for the exhibition.  Both Alava and Sivan created site-specific installations of manipulated thread. The forty-seven works on display comprise three main categories: abstract, representational, and Neo-Funky (bridging the first two modes), with nearly half of the artists working in abstraction or semi-abstraction. Of the nine representational pieces, four clearly impart a narrative message.  The seven examples of what could be termed Neo-Funk art are infused with metaphorical and symbolic themes, like many other works in the show.  As might be expected from artists embracing “craft” materials and experiencing urban environments, populist themes abound.

ABSTRACT

 

Gema Alava laboriously creates a gossamer effect of black-and-white thread, enticing viewers into a private space invigorated by ambiguity.  Also using thread, Vered Sivan transforms the relationship between space and the human body with subtle erotic overtones.  Through a process that she describes as “crochet painting,” Norma Minkowitz defines form and volume in delicate, translucent sculptures suggesting containment.  The semi-abstract quality of these works enhances their enigmatic presence.  Nancy Koenigsberg visualizes her manipulated-wire pieces as drawings in space, linear evocations of shadow and light. 

In hooked textile constructions, Marilyn Henrion visually interprets noise, from the cellular to the interstellar level. In Xenobia Bailey’s crocheted and embroidered Medicine Mandala, a twisting snake insinuates itself into the symmetrical structure.  Carole P. Kunstadt has the only piece of book art in the show, with stitches emphasizing the repetition of lines of text, to an incantatory effect. Fragments of text and image appear in Patricia Malarcher’s mixed-media piece, in a celebratory gesture toward ceremony and ritual.  Faint images in bleach prints spark the earthen colors of Ann Shostrom’s large-scale Wheatfield, an expressive textile assemblage informed by collage in modern and folk art.  Trained as a painter, Erma Martin Yost now uses felt as her canvas, inspired by nature and natural forms.  Several artists in New York Fiber work in contemporary quilt art, including Ludmila Uspenskaya, whose densely stitched surfaces vibrate with color that interprets emotion and natural forces.

Perfection in mathematical patterns and progression can be seen in works by three artists. Donna Sharrett’s circular forms, symbolic place-holders of memory, mirror the Buddhist mandala and the geometric schemes of Gothic rose windows.  Larry Schulte bases his work on the Fibonacci Sequence, which he relates to the Golden Mean and sequential patterning in nature.  Seeing pi by conceptual artist John Sims (in collaboration with Amish quilt makers) relates the digits of pi to specific colors, spiraling out in dynamic movement from the digit “3” in the center.  

REPRESENTATIONAL

 

Andrea Dezsö narrates female folk “wisdom” through embroidery, a time-honored technique modernized here by the artist’s ironic attitude.  Michael Cummings’s quilt, depicting sharecroppers, pays tribute to his mentor Romare Bearden in both technique and subject matter, on a grand scale.  Ai Kijima subverts narrative structure through multiple images, both iconic and found, confounding the concept of a storyline.  Don Porcella projects environmental concerns through his signature pipe-cleaner sculpture, apprehensive and yet prophetic.

Quilt artist Katherine Knauer repurposes a traditional quilting pattern to express modern themes.  Repression of homosexuals by Nazis is symbolized by pink triangles in the Flying Geese pattern, also an oblique reference to “Gänsel” (little goose), the Yiddish term for gay men.  In Mott Street Opera, Arlé Sklar-Weinstein creates a joyful paean to New York’s Chinatown, punning on “opera” as both the theatrical genre and the thriving street life in this urban neighborhood. Margaret Cusack’s stitched images couch social and political commentary within innocuous frameworks, luring in viewers with the prettiness of her presentation.  Ruth Marshall interprets through knitting the skin of an ocelot, a symbol of her concern for endangered species and her homage to these beautiful, elusive animals.  Gothic Coat by Erika Baker, executed in hand-dyed yarn, envelops the wearer in subtle color and texture. The wearer represents a sacred site, with both architectural and painterly imagery.

NEO-FUNK

 

Looking somewhat like a souvenir shop in moonlight, Dindga McCannon’s Magical Night in Senegal has the quirky sensibility and pop art appeal of Neo-Funk.  Like several of the works in this section, the artist’s textile art suggests autobiographical associations. Aristide Logothetis creates several simultaneous references to contemporary culture, including weapons and sexuality, in a bundled structure with transformative aspects.  Lisa Curran’s gigantic chain-like strands of crocheted wool seem both organic and mechanical, alien appendages that remain friendly but reserved. 

Lina Puerta explores interior space, inviting viewers to immerse themselves in meditative solitude or visual extravaganza.  In true Neo-Funk spirit, this artist revels in handmade objects and repurposed material, as does Leslie Pelino, who introduces humorous notes with her two pieces.  Combining personal and found objects with tapestry woven on her loom, this artist conjures life forms pulsating with energy. A pair of knitting needles by guerilla knitter Lacey Jane Roberts stand as instruments of this artist’s queerly provocative art.  Blanka Amezkua revitalizes dainty vintage textiles by contemporizing them in gestures of multi-colored thread, stitched in counterpoint to the original design.

There has never been a fiber exhibition of this scale highlighting the talents of New York artists. Bringing such creative forces together in a single venue is both educational and historic.     

Sandra Sider has written about fiber art for three decades and is the author of Pioneering Quilt Artists, 1960-1980: A New Direction in American Art (2010).