Imagine flinging a big circular net into waters swimming with contemporary art — perhaps a Paul Gauguin ocean, or a David Hockney pool. How would the catch look? Possibly, like Caroline Lathan-Stiefel’s Warp + Weft: colorful flotsam and jetsam strewn across grids of wire, string, and thread. The artist calls her works “drawings-in-space,” but that’s too vague.
From the size of a potholder to that of a wall, Lathan-Stiefel’s abstract creations suggest space as much as they define it. Canvasses seem to have dissolved, leaving delicate webs and their trappings, bright hand-sewn geometric shapes, floating in air. Whether wall mounted, unfurled from above, or standing, to be fully appreciated, all require plain white walls, such as those of Drexel’s Leonard Pearlstein Gallery.
In the eye…
Lathan-Stiefel says her drawings-in-space “cover, divide, encircle and fill the spaces…in flux and replicating various states of proliferating growth.” Bracken (2014), demonstrates this. Depending on the observer, it might be a river choked with plants glimpsed through overgrown vine curtains. It could also be a plant-choked river, glimpsed through a bridge abutment covered with vines. There is definitely a river. And vines.
The freestanding Jeux (2016), looks a lot like a sketch I made in biology of a mitochondrion, the energy-generating structure within cells. Lathan-Stiefel’s version consists of bright circles, squares, triangles, and oblongs, some of which are incised with spider webs, all suspended in a frame shaped like a giant lima bean.
I wish she’d been my lab partner.
The beautiful Avventura (2016) is more obscure. Swaths of yellow and blue chips arc through the air, and a margin of red runs down one side. The top edge is fastened to a branch, which is suspended from the ceiling, and a fringe of tiny fishing weights hold the bottom edge to earth. Many of Lathan-Stiefel’s pieces use these framing devices.
No scuba gear needed
Given its title, Hinterland (2010/2016) could be a diagram of population movement. Wall-mounted fabric loops and circles form two masses, a larger and a smaller, with a few circles positioned between them, as if in transit. Tropical colors and curving shapes suggest billowing marine life. Maybe the hinterland is underwater.
I feel certain that Wider than the sky redux (2014-2015) represents the aquatic world. It plunges the viewer into a tableau of hot-pink sea grass, a red and blue creature propelled by a neon tail, and crisscrossed black lines like a game of tic-tac-toe run amok, which could be coral.
In truth, the phrase "wider than the sky" comes from an Emily Dickinson poem about the brain, and Lathan-Stiefel has said that the work is inspired by cranial circuitry.
Making art from craft supplies
While Warp + Weft is made of things every schoolchild has used, pipe-cleaner stick figures can’t carry viewers into forests, oceans, or skies filled with doily clouds. Combining humble string and wire, cloth and bits of plastic into delicate talismans, Lathan-Stiefel elevates arts-and-crafts to art.
A 2015 Pew Fellow in the Arts, Lathan-Stiefel’s work has been exhibited throughout the United States and Canada. Locally, her work has been on view at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, the Locks and Tiger Strikes Asteroid galleries, the Delaware Contemporary Art Center, and the West Collection in Oaks, Pennsylvania.