By CHRISTINA L. SCHMITT November 15, 2023
“Threads of Expression” on view at the Lower East Side’s Shin Gallery, is a deftly woven arrangement of textile based artworks: handmade paper, collaged, warped and woofed paintings, tapestries and sewn, knitted or crocheted pieces that conjure fishnets and fabrics, quilts and carpets and present a deep dive into the history of textiles, art making and liberated female expression by means of a selective cross-section of works that span diverse materials and art forms.
These re-invented wall-hangings have a layered and ongoing conversation with each other, thanks to Hong Gyu Shin’s sensitive eye and considered curation. A miniature collage-cum-painting (somewhat reminiscent of Kurt Schwitters) by Anne Ryan is a diminutive gem which, placed near a vitrine containing a stacked, abstract ceramic piece by the multidisciplinary artist Toni Ross, seems to echo its similarly composed, though larger scaled forms — whose textural surfaces are delineated by a thin piece of black thread and wound gray cord — capturing the viewer’s attention. The two pieces carry on a subtle, yet powerful, visual duet, then proceed to engage with the works nearby: a group of hand-made paper and fabric arrangements consisting of additional collage works by Anne Ryan, and a black, tightly embroidered,1958 composition, redolent of the painterly concerns of this time, by Woty Werner.
Upon entering the Gallery, the viewer is met with a piece entitled “Sleep” from 1996 by Tracy Emin, in which the artist has roughly scribbled on a worn and creased pillowcase the words, “Be Brave Tracey”, invoking thereby a textile based graffiti with a message to both herself and, by implication, the viewer who has been allowed into the usually private and intimate domain of Tracy and her “dream catcher”. Next to this a pair of exaggeratedly elongated black “FingerGloves” from a performance by the German artist Rebecca Horn hang tickling the wall with their impossibly long extended “fingers” (see the video document of Horn’s 1971 performance with a similar pair of body extensions posted on the Shin Gallery website). They conjure bandages and, somehow simultaneously, allusions to both bodily damage or distortion as well as its potential healing. The piece was made after the artist had been diagnosed with lung cancer and had also lost both her parents.
Nearby, an elegant imaginative tapestry by Leonora Carrington, a contemporary of the Surrealists, depicting a chimerical animal holding in its fanciful paw a red flower is a boldly colored, yet whimsically fantastical image, with a leaf bedecked half moon and griffin body parts that also read like winding vines sumptuously woven in variously colored and glimmering wool thread.
Two pieces on burlap by Magda Bolumar painted in swaths of earthy browns and golds highlighted with nearly neon pops of greens, yellows, reds, pinks and blues invite the viewer to muse on their unusual color and compositional relationships, whose constructed yet organic abstractions read as cosmic constellations. They make use of a unique vocabulary of simultaneously knotted, knitted, strung or crocheted, then painted, forms arising from, then projecting out of and back into, the surface of the burlap which has been stretched and framed to create abstract woven worlds in a vein similar to that of Paul Klee or Juan Miro.
In the middle room a “machine-woven painting” in brown with black plus and minus icons finished with black fringe by Rosemarie Trockel commands the wall opposite the more intimate pieces by Ryan and Ross. The piece elicits comparison and contrast with an organically hand woven work, patiently made from traditional everyday materials like corn-husks and thread that hangs from a natural eucalyptus branch. This innovative contemporary composition is by Angélica Serech, a Kaqchikel Mayan textile artist from Guatemala who makes modern pieces using techniques based on ancestral weaving incorporating elements gathered from her people’s daily lives.
A pair of quilted, embroidered wall-hangings or re-invented tapestries sewn and painted in 1973 by the artist and activist Faith Ringold grace the left wall of the third and largest room in the show, depicting a dark-skinned nude female figure who, in one of the central frames, appears pregnant. Entitled “Rape of a Slave-Girl”, their soft forms beckon the viewer to engage with the hard historical truths they document.
Opposite, fishnet-like constructions, one in silver, one in gold, whose yarns loop and droop bearing coins and shells, as if gathered from some imaginary sea floor, by the Polish artist Barbara Levittoux-Świderska, dazzle, entice and conjure historical, archeological and nautical as well as “goddess of the deep” allusions. They are interspersed with three more works by Bolumar that step up the wall, one hung low near the floor asking the viewer to come in close for a better look.
The two remaining walls of this room present two large scale swirling, highly sculptural “paintings” that have been built up off of the canvas by the NY based Korean artist Hyon Gyon (aka Sion, discussed by the critic and essayist Donald Kuspit who writes for this publication ?).
Her unique use of a thick impasto combining paint with textural Korean silk elements traditionally used in shamanistic mix rituals as well as glued in bits of bright blue faux fur, further expands the boundaries between painting, fabric arts, fresco and sculpture that the other pieces in the show also blur. They rise thickly from the surface of the canvas into the space beyond, moving from the 2-d into the 3-d, while conjuring a curling red lipped mouth or De-Kooningesque visage from expressive brush marks that seem to congeal into large faces.
They employ a vigorous handling of painterly mark making seemingly re-purposed from the legacy of abstract-expressionism to the more personal and particular purposes of a reconfigured cathartic portraiture.
A remarkable piece made from heavily worn and re-patched swatches of indigo dyed, Japanese Boro quilts, worn, torn, mended and re-sewn, becomes, in the context of the show, a quotidian striped composition, a “non-painted painting”, as well as a poignant record of the cloth’s repeated use, humble repair and the passage of time. It is the only functional object in the show.
In her insightful book “Institutional Time”, Judy Chicago wrote, “Nineteenth-century ideology about women’s frailty infected the [Bauhaus]’s policies; certain materials were considered unsuitable for women, who were thought to be too physically weak for some of the workshops. They were therefore funneled into the applied arts, especially weaving. As it turned out, the textile workshop became legendary, in part because of the teaching of Anni Albers, who raised the standard of weaving from craft to that of fine art.” (1)
While all the artists in this show are women, it is refreshing to note that the pieces have been chosen and placed for their innovative use of materials, as well as formal, conceptual, narrative and political concerns, and their relationship to the theme of the re-invention of textile based technologies, rather than simply to fill some sort of quota. The show resonates on a number of levels, thereby illustrating and advancing feminist concerns with highly realized works of art.
Each piece included bends the boundaries between traditional notions of “craft”, textile or fabric production, and so-called “fine art”, a formerly male dominated domain, as they are images and/or objects employing traditionally “craft” based media that were created with the overt intention of being displayed rather than used as functional objects.
Having been made with the evident purpose of being exhibited, that is, hung on the wall or displayed in a vitrine or on a pedestal, the pieces in the show take liberties with the traditional notions of the textile based techniques of production that they creatively employ.
To wit, the ceramic pieces by Toni Ross are not usable tableware, but rather sculptural objects that explore the nature and textural nuances of fired clay, while riffing on some of the forms of traditional ceramics.
A cube-like hollow form in folded orange clay with a piece of twine tied around it is an exploration of the limits and implications of the ceramic medium contrasting the strength of the fired clay against the fragility of the solitary piece of twine (which in this context, is a singular reference to the theme of threaded media and textiles). The seemingly “collaged” scraps of the Boro quilt resewn over and over reverse this direction, as they are the product of necessity, rather than aesthetic exploration, but read here like panels of a cloth “painting” due to the curator’s choice to hang the quilt on the wall like an art-object.
Operating in the area between these formerly separated genres of “fine art”and “craft”, the rest of the work in this show explores a plethora of possibilities, celebrating new discoveries and vocabularies mapped out by the melding of media. Textile art, formerly associated with female artisans or “craft-makers” like quilters, embroiderers or seamstresses, is here re-invigorated and “elevated”, by means of innovative and unusual combinations that are twists, both literal and metaphoric, on traditional notions of art vs. craft, to exciting, vibrant, vigorous, sometimes politically potent and often surprising effect. Through November 4, 2023.
“Fine (fiber) art” indeed. WM
1. Judy Chicago, “Institutional Time” (Monacelli Press, 2014), pp. 64-65
Christina L. Schmitt is a painter, poet and writer based in NYC. She has B.A.s in the History of Art & Architecture and in Painting/Printmaking from Brown University, where she also studied Philosophy and Classics, and an M. F. A. in Painting from the Milton Avery Graduate School at Bard. After working in Architecture (the family business) she left to pursue her creative endeavours full-time. Her recent paintings and drawings investigate interlocking and opposing colour and geometric relationships in ways that have been described as both mathematical and mystical. She is currently working on illustrating and editing a cycle of poems that personify numbers. She lives in Brooklyn Heights, not far from Walt Whitman, W.H. Auden, Truman Capote, and Gypsy Rose Lee’s former stomping grounds, and keeps a studio in DUMBO.view all articles from this author