Review: Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present
I was wrong. Or maybe I was just taught wrong. Is there a difference? I’m not sure.
See, I learned most of what I know about modern fiber art in the decidedly unheady ’80s. I was enrolled in classes at OSU. At the time there were a handful of art history classes that covered modern and contemporary art. Those classes usually toed more or less the same line when it came to fiber art, that is, (and I’m simplifying here, but not by much): fiber art was part of the feminist art movement. It came about as a reaction against the male-dominated and painting-centric art world. Fiber art was a vehicle by which women could both stake their claim in the art world and raise up the stature of those endeavors that had traditionally been viewed as “women’s work” (i.e. sewing, weaving, textiles, etc.).
As a male student who was studying (lol) painting, I was a bit ambivalent about the whole enterprise. I wasn’t against it per se, but I certainly never felt like it was “for me”. It was, as far as I could tell, the medicine we had to take. It was for our own good. We’d feel better. I should mention too that fiber art was done no favors by the textbooks of the day. I can’t recall a single color plate or color reproduction of any fiber art in those tomes save Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. Point being, as much as these books were willing to acknowledge fiber art, you still had a better chance of rating a color reproduction if you stuck with painting and were named Picasso, Warhol, Rauschenberg or Schnabel. Long story short, the whole business of fiber art came off as dour, colorless and pedantic to me.
Like I said, I was wrong.
Perhaps more embarrassingly, I remained wrong for a very long time.
What was missing from my education, what I never learned, was this: fiber art can be beautiful. It can be inspiring. It can be witty, wry, trenchant and smart. It can be sublime. Perhaps most importantly I learned that fiber art doesn’t need a reactionary stance. Its value isn’t something derived because of or in relation to anything else. Fiber art can stand on its own thank you very much. Sure, fiber artists needed to get their foot in the door at some point, but once inside they proved themselves both equal to and independent of anyone else in the room.
How did I learn all this? I visited the Wexner Center to see the spectacular exhibition Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present.
As the title suggests, this exhibition focuses on fiber sculpture, and while there are a quite a few relief works, many of the most compelling pieces are free-standing sculptures. The arrangement itself eschews the historical/chronological approach, offering instead a thematic presentation that takes advantage of the Wexner Center’s unique space. As the gallery opens up, the works rise and blossom right along with it. (I should mention too that this kind of configuration represents the Wexner Center’s exhibition space at it’s best. The fact is, some shows work better here than others. That said, anytime the space and the art can find this kind of balance, the results benefit both. The art looks great and the space makes sense).
The thematic grouping is effective as well. I’m cynical enough that when I hear curators and museum types talk about works “having a dialog with each other” or “being in conversation with one another”, I usually roll my eyes. In this instance though, there’s no better way to describe what goes on as one moves through the gallery. These works complement and collaborate to illustrate the themes of grid, color, gravity, architecture, and yes, feminism.
But these themes are just a starting point. They assist in orienting visitors, but they don’t define the depth and complexities found throughout the exhibition or in the individual works. Elsi Giauque’s Element Spatial (Spatial Element) (1979) is tour-de-force of geometrical abstraction, out-opping even the most ambitious Op art of the time. It’s ability to reinvent itself at every conceivable angle makes it a highlight of the exhibition. Similarly, Naomi Kobayashi’s Ito wa ito (1980) presents the kind of spare, jarring simplicity that many Color Field painters could only dream of achieving.
For a more organic take on fiber’s potential, the neutral space containing Kay Sekimachi and Lenore Tawney’s work can’t be beat. Using radically different materials and approaches, both artists manage to create works that are somber, ethereal, totemic, and timeless. In their way these works illustrate exactly what visual art excels at, that is evoking a feeling or mood that words could never capture.
And that’s a just hint of what fiber can do. Consider Francoise Grossen’s observation, “First we broke with the rectangle, and then we broke with the wall”. With this dictum comes the full realization of fiber’s potential. It can cascade and flow. It can bend and support. It can invite and it can protect. As Sheila Hicks points out, fiber has “its own laws”. Seeing those laws in action, whether it’s the weight of Grossen’s Inchworm (1971) or the gravity defying acrobatics of Sheila Pepe’s Put Me Down Gently (hover & slope) (2015), is one of Fiber’s greatest joys.
While it’s hard to admit mistakes, sometimes it’s the best way forward. I was wrong about fiber art, but now I think I’m getting it right. For that I can thank Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present. It’s a terrific, terrific show filled with amazing art. Get it right. Go see it.
For more information, visit www.wexarts.org.
For more ongoing and upcoming art exhibitions in Columbus, CLICK HERE to visit our Calendar.
Élément spatial (Spatial Element)
Linen, silk, wool, and metal
Twenty frames, each 35 3⁄8 x 37 3⁄8 x 1⁄4 inches
Mudac–Musée de design et d’arts appliqués contemporains, Lausanne, Switzerland
Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column
Acrylic, linen, cotton, bamboo, and silk
204 x 48 x 48 inches. (variable)
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Ito wa ito
12 1/4 x 160 1/4 x 5 7/8 inches
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Polypropylene and polyester rope, metal bells, and seed pods
115 x 268 x 35 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
Wool, synthetic yarn, and wood
43 x 103 x 43 inches
Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend, Wisconsin
Gift of the Kohler Foundation, Inc.
©The Estate of Jean Stamsta
Wood, linen, and steel
33 1/2 x 80 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches
Jute, linen, sisal, wool, aluminum, and steel
124 x 82 1/2 x 36 inches