Living in a material world

"In Material: Fiber 2012' at the Arthur Ross Gallery

5 minute read
Lee's 'Untitiled': Distress signal, in thousands of twist-ties.
Lee's 'Untitiled': Distress signal, in thousands of twist-ties.
"Fiber Philadelphia 2012," an international biennial for fiber art comprising more than 30 exhibitions, officially begins in March. But some of its shows have already opened.

"In Material," at Penn's Arthur Ross Gallery, features the work of four well-established artists: Mi-Kyoung Lee, Sonya Clark, Lucy Arai and Cynthia Schira. It focuses on the inspired selection and manipulation of "fibers" to convey ideas, and express and elicit feelings.

Fibers are loosely defined here— everything from traditional thread to any material that can be refashioned in a fiber-based process such as weaving, stitching, stringing, braiding, netting, knotting, felting or dyeing.

The quality of work in this exhibition bodes well for the coming biennial. The installation itself is breathtaking. Several pieces are extremely large, among them two untitled works by Lee, which show to great advantage in the gallery's towering and majestic space. In both pieces, Lee uses manufactured materials to suggest natural forms. Her choice of shapes, colors and textures express human emotions.

Like a tornado

One piece is constructed of thousands of netted and bundled red plastic twist ties. With its base balanced on the floor and its upper part raggedly splayed against a wall, it made me think of a tornado, but it's certainly more about feelings of distress than about any specific thing.

The other piece is as calm as the twist-tie one is anxious. It's composed of bright yellow cotton threads stitched and layered on silk organza. The bloom-like form is face down; its threads are arranged in a graceful circle on the floor, and its stem is attached by the thinnest of threads to the ceiling 30 feet above.

According to her biography, Lee has been designing and creating sets for the International Opera Theater since 2005, which explains her affinity for big-gesture work and her confidence in successfully mounting it. At the University of the Arts, where she teaches, she involves student interns in her opera work, and it's likely that some had a hand in assembling the labor-intensive twist-tie piece, which seems way beyond what one person could construct alone.

Race and the color white

Sonya Clark uses hair (which she calls "the primordial fiber") to comment on racial identity and cultural prejudices. In Pearl Long Strand (2012), she brings attention to the ubiquitous positive associations the color white has in our society by creating the classic necklace out of black beads felted from her own hair. In Hair Wreath (2009), dreadlocks bound with wire into an innocent decoration are simultaneously a crown of thorns.

Clark, professor and chair of the Craft/Material Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University, also uses manufactured materials— specifically combs, chosen because they are the artifacts most associated with hair.

In Uncurl (2010), she strings together 84 inches of identical black plastic combs that hang gracefully down the wall and terminate in a coil on the floor. This sleek, black and shiny sculpture brilliantly references straightened hair and the effort that goes into achieving it.

Cosmic landscapes

Lucy Arai's materials are handmade paper, sumi ink, indigo pigment, metallic leaf and thread, used in a meticulous stitching technique of Japanese origin called sashiko. Her works are slender verticals, more than seven feet high, which call to mind Asian scrolls. These powerful, dramatic and just plain beautiful works read as cosmic landscapes in which order (the stitching) and chaos (the ink and paint) meet head-on.

An excellent ten-minute video shows Arai, an AsiaAlive Artist with the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, working her materials. (It's not permanently on, but the guard will set it up if you ask.) In it, you see Arai's thick paper on the ground, her mop-stroke of sumi ink applied with the force of her entire body, and her gentler drippings of watery pigment.

Arai explains how she waits, letting the capillary action of the paper fulfill whatever is inherently there. Only later does she interpret what has emerged, choosing which forms to emphasize with metallic leaf and which to embed with stitching.

Art by computer

Cynthia Schira weaves cotton, an age-old process using a traditional material. Yet her work is extremely high-tech. For almost three decades, she has weaved on electronic looms. Etymon (2010), her sole work in this show, is a gargantuan wall hanging made on an electronic Jacquard loom. It's a precursor to a work slated for a research library at the University of Kansas, where Schira taught for many years.

The hanging, which Schira says is intended to suggest a collection of things, contains 39 images, each representing one of the library's prestigious holdings. Each image (script, alphabets, Celtic motifs, etc.) is repeated eight times vertically (the piece hangs at right angles to how it was woven), and despite interesting juxtapositions of pattern side-to-side, the work seems uncomfortably mono-directional and compartmentalized to me.

Schira's recorded statement (accessible by cell phone) didn't resolve my aesthetic concerns, but it did clearly describe what's not readily understood by just viewing the piece. The bulk of her artistic process, she says, occurred at the computer and took an immense amount of time. She downloaded electronic images from the library's web site. Using Photoshop, she made them more abstract. And finally, she entered the images into a Computer Aided Design program, which adjusted them for the specific loom that did the weaving.

The weaving part, she notes, took almost no time at all.

What, When, Where

“In Material: Fiber 2012.†Through March 25, 2012 at Arthur Ross Gallery, 220 South 34th Street. (215) 898-2083 or

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