LOS ANGELES — MFA graduates in Southern California are weaving textiles into their works. A surprising number of artists at the SoCal MFA 2018 juried exhibition — an annual showcase of promising new graduates from studio art MFA programs throughout Southern California — are working with textiles and fabric arts. Granted, textiles have been celebrated cross-culturally in art history, from the indigo dyed-textiles of Japan to the woven designs of South America. In the recent history of the US, however, work in textiles has been kept in the home sphere, often associated with craft and ‘women’s work,’ such as cross-stitching and knitting. The shift in viewing those who work with textiles as artists rather than artisans is a relatively new transition, and thus may influence the types of works that artists create in the medium.
This year’s SoCal MFA exhibition was juried by retired LACMA curator Howard N. Fox and showcased artists from 17 Southern California MFA programs, from the University of Fullerton to the University of California, San Diego. Among the standout works on view at the Millard Sheets Art Center were California State University San Diego grad Aleya Lanteigne’s “Hold Me Tight; I Don’t Bite” and “Bumroll, Please,” which play with the themes and aesthetics of women’s relation to textiles. What’s most striking about these pieces are the shapes that she chose to create. “Hold Me Tight; I Don’t Bite” strikingly resembles a vagina, while “Bumroll Please” looks like a series of wreaths made from clothes hangers. By incorporating domestic elements like clothes hangers, and materials such as lace and ribbon, Lanteigne establishes a connection to women’s bodies and homemaking. The artist manipulates these common materials to break molds and make unique sculptures.
Several other artists in the exhibition chose to create mixed media works utilizing textiles, including California State University Fullerton grad Allison Holland. Her piece, “The Repairing Chair” was used in many of the promotional materials for the SoCal MFA exhibition, and for good reason. Holland mixed granny-square crochet with a found wheelchair, the result reminiscent of the yarn bombing trend from a few years ago. The granny square reference comes from the artist’s introduction to textiles. “My mother and grandmother both embroidered and both taught me,” Holland told me over email. “It wasn’t until college that I learned to crochet. My step-mother was making blankets for family and she gave me a lesson. It seemed so much faster than knitting, so I tried it and fell in love. There are still so many fiber processes I want to try.”
University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) student Kamaria Shepherd utilized a unique approach in “F.L.A.A.G.” (or “Fly Lunacy of African American Girl”), painting a pattern onto a portion of one fabric that she then stitched in a patchwork. The result is an artwork that resembles a flag and hints at expressions of individuality, especially given the name. At the other end of the spectrum is University of California San Diego (UCSD) student Zebulon Zang’s “Do or Die,” which humorously reads “DO OR DIET” across a blue tarp. While “Do or Die” is technically fabric art, its aesthetics are markedly different from the other textiles works in the exhibition. Zang could have easily scrawled his message on a blue canvas, but maybe given the hasty impression that a blue tarp indicates, he chose to work with the rougher material instead. The background lights in the dark alcove where the work hangs are a nice touch, and indicate an artist who understands not only how to make people laugh, but how to stage their work well.
While “Do or Die” is rooted in Minimalism, California State University San Diego student Remi Dalton’s “Poor Personal Choices” leans in the opposite direction — though both artists share a self-deprecating sense of humor. The piece is bright, colorful, and commands viewers’ attention. Dalton has succeeded in creating a complex piece that works both at a distance, and up close, with details that reveal themselves the closer one gets.
What’s notable about the fiber artists in this exhibition is that they all work with the medium in very different ways. Fiber art is very malleable, and the sheer number of fabric pieces in the SoCal MFA suggests that the recent explosion of textile art is not about to slow down.