Fiber art is worthy of the same prestige we afford painting and sculpture but seldom ever receives it. And despite a growing educational effort by curators, scholars, and cultural institutions to promote the woolly practice to the public as a reputable one, fiber artists often find themselves defending their work against onlookers who label their work “craft” in diminutive terms.
Yet studies show that fiber art is the most popular art form in America. The last study of public participation in the arts carried out by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012 revealed that 13% of adults have engaged in weaving, crocheting, quilting, needlepoint, knitting, or sewing in that same year — more than any other art form, including music. Perhaps easy access to the medium offends the contemporary art world’s elite sensibilities. Who really cares about knits?
Apparently, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) does. Co-curated by Carli Beseau and Danny Orendorff, Studio Views: Craft in the Expanded Field reimagines the museum’s third floor gallery space as an artist’s studio for two. Cycle one of the exhibition, which ran until October 15th, featured LJ Roberts and Sarah Zapata. Cycle two, which began on October 20th, features Xenobia Bailey and Maria Hupfield. During the artists’ stay, museumgoers have the opportunity to see fiber artists at work. (The artists are required to be present for gallery hours four days out of the week.) Visiting the exhibition for both cycles, I found that this curatorial decision smartly pulled double duty: it both demystifies the process of fiber art making and allows artists to dialogue with a curious public.
This curatorial decision alights on how critical themes of community and engagement are to the history of fiber art. Zapata’s massive, prismatic tapestries negotiate her Peruvian heritage with an interest in feminist theory. Looking like a mix-and-match shag rug, her textiles appear heavy on the wall; they resist being particularly spatially ordered in preference to their own formless slouch. Zapata wants to unspool (pun intended) the gendered use of ceremonial textiles from Peru and elsewhere. With this work, she asks: If women weave them, why are they so often prohibited from later viewing them in a sacred context? Following in the footsteps of German textile artist Anni Albers, Zapata is specifically interested in the history of pre-Columbian, hand-woven textiles. But whereas Albers indulges in the geometry of such designs, Zapata fights against it. She reconfigures the ceremonial formalism into an informal, ad hoc formlessness. The typical monotheistic model of the patriarchal worship tradition becomes multiple, opening to new interpretations and political insinuations.
Roberts’s radical interests are far less rooted in ancient ritual. Drawing on the queer radicalism of lesbian separatists from the 1970s, Roberts digs into a particularly niche utopian zeitgeist: van culture. A nearby vitrine showcases the wonderfully quixotic aims of this project, which Roberts has titled, “VanDykesTransVanTransDykesTranAmTransGrandmaDykeVanDamDEntalDamDamn” (2017). The van is a stand-in for a utopian place. The van can go anywhere or just stay put. It can be anything — a vansion, a vantasy, vanarchy. The van, like queerness, is always arriving. Here, Roberts includes a choice quote from queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz: “Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it … The future is queerness’ domain.” At the time I saw the work , Roberts’s project already sputtered with the wild possibilities that queerness affords. During my visit, I saw spools of neon-colored yarn framing where the van would eventually be. I imagine Roberts’s van surely ended up being vibrant and imposing — a massive, rollicking, lumpy, busy, hulking, overwhelming thing that to my minimalist-minded eyes would seem larger than life.
Although the aim of this exhibition cycle is for both sets of artists to complete their projects, I ironically find something delectably smart about the unfinished nature of what I saw. Zapata’s feminist investigation of ceremonial objects is an interesting, if expansive, undertaking — one worth a lifetime. Likewise, Roberts’ utopian van is chimerical, a vision of a queerness that’s elusive and caught in the undertow of hippie idealism. Such idealism is something we seek, but seldom obtain.
Cycle two brings the studios of Bailey and Hupfield into conversation with each other. They replace the wildly unspooled works of Roberts and Zapata with more conservative and quiet fiber works. Roberts’ studio space is now occupied by Bailey, whose “Time + Space = Place” involves the layering of beautifully crocheted concentric circles to convey something akin to kinetic poetry. But while Bailey clearly has an eye for color and pattern, her work never energizes the museum space in the ways you’d hope. Educated in musicology and industrial design, Bailey’s educational background is what you get in her work. Her wall pieces feel particularly hampered by a deference to academic discipline. (I could easily see her leftmost work hanging in a university’s music department.) But perhaps it’s the meditative patterning of Bailey’s overlapping mandalas that bores me. Something about these feels very phoned in, or evincing too little originality on the artist’s part. I think what’s missing here is an initiation into the performative aspects of Bailey’s work. Barbie dolls line the artist’s desk, and in the center of the room we see a life-sized, Black manikin draped in Bailey’s concentric circles. Despite an avowed allegiance to music, the artist never reveals how her psychedelic circles would be worn or used. How would someone perform Bailey’s textiles? And what is the relationship here between Bailey’s textiles and funk music? That’s something only hinted to in the studio’s accompanying text, but not actually evident in what’s on display inside Bailey’s studio.
Across the gallery, Hupfield has transformed her studio space into a living laboratory, called “Electric Pop and Hum Freestyle Variations Studio.” Rooted in her identity as a member of the Anishinaabe Nation at Wasauksing First Nation, Hupfield emphasizes the links between indigenous culture and contemporary textile practice. Across the back of her studio hangs a massive banner that shouts various called for action, solidarity, and vigilance. The banner reminded me of the numerous signs carried around at the Keystone XL Pipeline protests that reignited public recognition of how modern governments continue to disenfranchise and ignore indigenous peoples. Hupfield is keenly aware of her politicized identity. Within the studio, she is now also creating “Sacagawea Mail Cai,” a suit of armor consisting of Sacagawea one-dollar coins. Posing an answer to the question of how to embrace our inherited histories, problems and all, Hupfield literally cashes in on the Sacagawea story. The monetization of her personhood into dollar coins becomes defensive shielding, heavy but fortifying. And although “Sacagawea Mail Cai” sits unfinished in the artist’s studio at MAD, it is scheduled to be completed by the end of the residency for a performance in January.
As a package deal, cycles one and two of Studio Visits has made an exceptionally strong argument for a revitalized interest in fiber art. True to its title, the exhibition demonstrates how broad the field is, spanning queer utopian thought to indigenous protest and historical meditation. If this is a first taste of the expanded field of fiber arts, then we must look forward to what comes next: textiles whose materiality translates into transcendence, fibers that become spiritual complements of prayer.
Studio Views: Craft in the Expanded Field continues at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Central Park South) through January 7.