Whitehot Magazine

Robin Kang Toes the Spirit Line


 Robin Kang, Skywoman textile, images courtesy of the artist and OUTLET Fine Art, Brooklyn, NY

Robin Kang
Until Nov, 6th, 2016


“My art is constantly changing,” says Robin Kang, a self professed fiber artist, whose latest solo exhibition at OUTLET Fine Art in Brooklyn, Skywoman’s Secret Circuit, doesn’t necessarily shatter established paradigms regarding art, commerce, and technology, but rather pushes our collective consciousness towards a harmonious “ancient future,” a bridging of valuable yet sadly forgotten tribal wisdom with increasingly ubiquitous and complex technology and beguiling sci-fi speculation. This organic amalgam of ostensibly disparate worlds, which will surely stand as the increasingly lucid value system and general ideology behind an inevitable global singularity, is gloriously articulated in Kang’s truly resplendent woven panels.

It’s rare that a show so effortlessly tickles our simple, visual, aesthetic pleasures while inviting seemingly highfalutin conversations regarding the past, present, and future of our species. It’s becoming clear however, when taking race relations, a polarized economy, the general state of modern politics and the well being of our planet into account, that these conversations, previously relegated to pejorative “new age” forums, must take place right now, in the mainstream, and in earnest. Though the “white box” gallery, as a construct, constantly comes under fire for its adherence to capitalistic norms and a presumably elitist, exclusionary modus operandi, spaces like OUTLET (as you can probably presume from the gallery’s title alone), can provide a meditative, secular, challenging, and yes, “safe” space for such discourse, even if it should turn political, which it often does. 

 Robin Kang, Skywoman textile, images courtesy of the artist and OUTLET Fine Art, Brooklyn, NY

The writer and “radical futurist” Daniel Pinchbeck, author of the upcoming How Soon Is Now: From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation (Watkins Press), goes into greater detail regarding this notion in a compelling piece in Artsy regarding the public perception of the artwork showcased annually at Burning Man. Where the artists at the temporary Black Rock City in Nevada face a different kind of classification bias, primarily due to the nature of their work existing as isolated, non-commercial and frequently ephemeral art objects, Kang and other artists who work with fiber struggle to enter into the fine art or “high-art” conversation, and are often relegated to “craft,” still frequently perceived as “women’s work.” 

For Kang, adhering to any identifier affixed to the proper title Artist, whether it’s fiber or female, like some unwelcomed parrot on her shoulder, can be a bit of a burden. Though much of the discussion regarding contemporary art and the artists who make it can be complex, perhaps it’s time to take a reductionist approach, as we shed identifiers and push towards a supreme complexity that can only be described in the simplest universal terms. The idea of singularity itself is a reductionist idea. The Nobel Prize winning author, philosopher and acclaimed neuroscientist Eric R. Kandel discusses this notion in his recently released Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging Two Cultures (Columbia University Press).

 Robin Kang, Skywoman textile, images courtesy of the artist and OUTLET Fine Art, Brooklyn, NY

Where Kandel applies the reductionist approach to “the most complex puzzle of our time-the brain” and how great artists, primarily abstract expressionists like Rothko, de Kooning, and Pollock distill their subjective world into light, form and color, Kang focuses her attention on circuit technology, primitive motherboards and early computing machines, which have evolved in plain site over time, in presumably stark contrast to our own brains, which for an untold number of living homo sapiens, whether we can currently and accurately measure it or not, must be evolving exponentially and in tandem with said machines.  

What’s interesting however, and Kandel only touches on this briefly, is the fact that it’s exactly the Rothkos and the Pollocks who have created the enduring paradigm that denotes what is and what isn’t high-art, which in many ways remains the perceived high water mark of the global art history cannon. To be Pop Art’s advocate for a moment, one must look at the school through the lens of sassy commercial criticism, as it served more as a singular Warholian trend than an enduring movement, despite the work of Katz, Close and Sandback standing as a necessary retort to AbEx masculinity, even if, as Kandel notes, it behaves much like an open extension of the New York School. The reality is, however unfortunate it may be, that Pop Art currently lives in a modern art sub-sphere alongside street art, for instance. Taking this into account, if we were to look at the exalted AbEx movement through the same lens that we view technology, wouldn’t we shudder at our continued infatuation with something that had its true moment all the way back in the mid 20th Century, or is this comparison still useless, despite the unmistakable integration of art and technology?

To be sure, Kang is aware of the construct of the “mad, white, western, male hero” and his initial role in utterly destroying the strict adoration of classical works, many of which grew out of the Renaissance and put great emphasis on studied skill and craftsmanship. It’s interesting how this modern boys club, who traded in conceptual novelty, in fact pushed some women further into the realm of “craft” out of necessity, not least of all Anni Albers, who, being a woman, was barred from studying painting at Bauhaus and instead took up weaving under the tutelage of Gunta Stölzl, both major influences for Kang. Perhaps even more interesting than the Anni Albers of the world, or even the contemporary queer, feminist, or counter-culture fiber artists such as Josh Faught, Nick Cave, Anne Wilson, Sheila Pepe, Magdalena Abakanowicz and Beryl Korot, are the woman of the Navajo tribe, who in the sixties were instrumental in providing the foundational aesthetic map pattern for almost every circuit and motherboard in existence to this day. 

 Robin Kang, Skywoman textile, images courtesy of the artist and OUTLET Fine Art, Brooklyn, NY

In the mid 1960s, the admittedly brilliant scientist, Stanford professor, and co-inventor of the transistor, William Shockley, who would become known as the “Father of Silicon Valley,” as well as a somewhat racist proponent of eugenics, spearheaded an initiative that employed women of the Navajo tribe as cheap, plentiful, nimbly fingered, and dexterous labor for the construction of early circuitry, including calculators and missile guidance systems, all organically modeled on the ancient aesthetic of ceremonial Navajo blankets.  

As the writer and professor Lisa Nakamura notes in her 2014 article Indigenous Circuits, for roughly a ten year period between 1965-1975 the Fairchild Corporation’s Semiconductor Division operated a large integrated circuit manufacturing plant in Shiprock, New Mexico, on a Navajo reservation, brazenly taking advantage of considerable tax benefits. During this period, the corporation was the largest private employer of Indian workers in the U.S. Kang’s show leaps directly off this little known story with insane futurist implications, while making the visual argument that Navajo rugs are merely a different version of the exact same pattern and aesthetic tradition found within the enduring integrated circuit. This synergy of native wisdom and developing technology, an ouroboros circuit in and of itself, is a clear example of “ancient future.”

“What about these beautiful, hand made textiles from native cultures is not considered artistically valuable?” asks Kang, who uses a similar, time consuming approach when manually navigating the loom’s foot pedal, weft and warp threads before utilizing the latest digital technology to execute her magnificent panels and weavings. Though she could construct her works with perfect, mathematical precision using a semi-automated Jacquard loom, which the show’s curator John Silvis notes is “a contemporary version of the first binary-operated machine and precursor to early computers,” Kang makes sure to leave trace elements of human artistic magic.

“I improvise as I go, creating intentional glitches, which give off a raw, handmade feel,” says Kang. “Actually, this is a tradition in many weaving cultures, not just Navajo, but in the Middle East and in Asia as well. The Navajo call this “the spirit line,” an intentional error or mistake in the weave through which the spirit would enter and exit so that it could move into the next piece you make.” Ed Moses, who took inspiration from the same Navajo blankets when creating his masterful abstract grid paintings in the ‘70s, called this “the gap.” 

 Robin Kang, Skywoman textile, images courtesy of the artist and OUTLET Fine Art, Brooklyn, NY

“There’s so much ancient wisdom that was somehow thrown out during the industrialization process, a process in many ways kick-started by the creation of the loom and increasingly advanced textile production,” Kang says, noting the irony of fiber’s relationship to global economics, not least of all America’s dark past. “Here we are now, saying, ‘Wait a minute we lost some things that are important to us as a species.’ ” There’s actually a term for this: Millennial Anger. Young people are perplexed and rightfully pissed off that previous generations and those still in power, hell-bent on greed and materialism, let things get to such a dire point.

“This is a tricky thing to talk about because I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was appropriating,” says Kang, treading carefully along the PC fault line. This is a new phenomenon: fear of cultural appropriation. The motherboard and perhaps all advanced computers would never be a thing without cultural appropriation. It’s when culture, as a commodity, isn’t gracefully shared or properly credited, but usurped and abused that it becomes a problem. Many offended parties might shout and protest that “intention doesn’t matter,” but in native cultures especially, intention is everything! In shamanic practices, it’s often imperative, a prerequisite in fact, that intentions are openly declared before moving forward. Shamans and healers rarely if ever discriminate based upon race, class or gender, but will shut the door on anyone whose intentions aren’t pure. Affording each other opportunity to declare one’s intention and ultimately follow through on said intention is essential if humans of various cultures are going to coexist and evolve concurrently.

The Fairchild Corporation’s Semiconductor Division was eventually shut down do to the obvious reality that the almost exclusively female workers were being exploited, a clear microcosm of the larger, unfortunate Native American experience in America, a country that too often models its values on the most destructive tenants of a waning, failing industrial revolution, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline. A contemporary case could be made that the outsourced creation of, say iPhones in China, for instance, could instead make a triumphant return to the States, creating jobs and specifically for struggling Native peoples, all in a renewed partnership, a reignited circuit if you will, executed ethically, should our intentions remain grounded in the purest values inherent in the American dream, which must survive. 

Kang, like many artists and thinkers, though clearly aware of so many obstacles, not only in the art world but the world at large, is fueled by an almost manic sense of optimism, which is nothing short of infectious, much like the artists shimmering perma-smile. In Skywoman’s Secret Circuit, Kang pushes her own work to a new, audacious level, and perhaps sets a new standard for what art can and should be, as monumental works like “Golden Shield, 2016,” leave the viewer in an almost intimidating, frozen sense of awe and wonder, an accomplishment often attributed to the masculine, painterly heroes of yore who abandoned craft for emotion; artists that Kang acknowledges but leaves so thoroughly and gracefully in the dust.

“I feel like I’m just scratching the surface,” says Kang, perhaps aware of the future, futile attempts of any writer to nail down the full scope of what she accomplishes in this excellent show. “[There’s] so many weave structures I haven’t explored yet. Also, I feel like I’m just coming into my own with generating imagery. I’m discovering all these forms, shapes and symbols, which are bubbling up, and it feels good.” WM 

Skywoman’s Secret Circuit is up until November 6th, 2016 at OUTLET Fine Art.


Kurt McVey


Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.


photo by Monet Lucki


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