Though its origins are somewhat disputed, a popular maxim holds that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” — which is a sideswipe at music criticism, specifically, but might also be more broadly interpreted to mean that certain expressive media cannot be effectively used to convey a sense of others. In this spirit, it might be argued that it is very difficult to knit about dance, but fiber artist Katie Shulman would likely disagree.
“I have a structured process, and I like to use materials like elastic bra strapping that behaves with its own will,” Shulman told Hyperallergic during a studio visit, “and because I am making such specific decisions, there’s an intermediary period that is pretty intuitive. I’m pushing and pulling and making connections based on weight and tension.”
Shulman’s constructions are quite bodily, and vary in size, shape, and materiality, but they tend to be comprised of three basic components: handmade or sourced rope or strapping that is knitted on or off-loom, found metal armatures that provide stability, and interjected objects (often made of wood, but sometimes softer). Shulman dyes her fibers into visceral magentas and pinks, so her studio is festooned with hanging objects that evoke, among other things, a butcher shop full of unidentifiable cuts of meat, or a meat locker of anonymized bodies with their own evasive logic.
When talking about these works, Shulman references contact improvisation — a form of dance developed initially in 1972 by choreographer Steve Paxton, rooted in the spontaneous communication between two moving bodies, responding to each other and laws of physics, such as gravity and momentum.
“Contact improvisation has a warm-up where you basically do a body scan,” said Shulman. “The point is that you have to know your own material to engage with another material. I really extrapolate a lot of metaphors there about how I’m putting things together.”
From undergraduate origins as a printmaker, Shulman moved out of two-dimensional work by way of material exploration through a fiber art MFA at Syracuse University, under the mentorship of Ann Clarke.
“She really listened to my desire to experiment,” said Shulman. “She would leave materials in my studio for me to play with. I’m a printmaker by training, so I’m obsessed with process, and everything changed for me when she [Clarke] taught us how to make rope one day.”
On a subsequent semester in Los Angeles, Shulman began to formalize a rope-making process, salvaging pounds upon pounds of secondhand bedsheets, cleaning them, cutting them, dying them, spooling them onto bobbins and making ropes, then sculpting the rope through an additive process of knitting, or cutting away at them and letting them unwind. During that semester, Shulman interned at Tanya Aguiñiga‘s studio, working very closely with her then-production manager, Sovonchan Sorn, and her then-studio manager, Dana Funaro, who taught Shulman to loom knit. Now all of Shulman’s three-dimensional works are knitted, with variations made through the material, size of looms, and “cadence” of intervals in the weave.
“I like the term ‘enabling constraints,’” said Shulman. “When there’s a bit of a bounding box around what I do, I feel like things are endless.” The walls of the studio are peppered with material experiments, bagged and labeled meticulously, ready to be called into action between Shulman’s structure and her abstraction. Follow the body far enough into your materials, it seems, and eventually, the body comes right back out. Different series of recent works directly reference these bodily notions — the intestinal Skin to Skin (2021), the artifact-vessel Basket Bodies (2020), elastic and bedsheets straining around bristling internal armatures in Hard and Soft Bodies (ongoing), the awkward balance act in Points of Contact (2020), and the strangely tender interactions between salvaged car parts and fiber appendages in Gesture Sequences (2019).
If the body as a point of inspiration was once an innocent or abstract notion to Shulman, her more recent work can no longer avoid the body as battleground — an issue tackled within Myrrha, an upcoming collaborative exhibition with woodworker Forrest Hudes, which opens at I.M. Weiss Gallery in Detroit on April 1. The show takes its name from the character of Greek myth, and its uncomfortable parallel with current events regarding reproductive freedom.
“We started thinking about the show around the time Roe v. Wade was overturned,” Shulman said. “There was that awful story about the 10-year-old who was raped and got pregnant, and none of the big papers believed the story.” Hudes connected this to the myth of Myrrha, who is cursed by Aphrodite to seduce her father. When she becomes pregnant from the encounter, Myrrha flees and is turned into a Myrrh tree, and eventually births Adonis, while still in tree form.
“The image of the story is the tree crying, because her reality cannot be contained by this punishment,” said Shulman. Some works in the exhibition originated from Hudes, others from Shulman, and over the course of collaboration have passed back and forth, with each artist intervening in the work of the other. It’s a kind of fine art game of rock-paper-scissors, with fabric and wood — but it’s also something of a power struggle, and raises the all-too-pertinent question of what happens when we don’t have control over our bodies.
“We were thinking a lot about the disconnect around reproduction and women’s autonomy, and the lived experience of having things happen to the body,” said Shulman. “Forrest’s wood and my fiber started to interact, and suddenly we’re playing with the inherent messiness of living in a body, experiencing the realities of the body, and blurring the boundaries between inside and outside the body.”
“After this show, I don’t think I’ll be able to go back to avoiding the question of is my work violent?” she said.
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