Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present - Book Review

This may or may not be interesting to my readers. To those of you who are only interested in needle felting itself (the craft) I will tell you now, this book has nothing to do with that. Considering that by "present" the most recent work is 2014, I am a bit surprised that no needle felted fiber art made the cut. Much like fiber art, which is incredibly new itself, has had some difficulty being recognized as an art form rather than craft, I have a feeling needle felting will likely be its bastard child for a while (until more and more artists start exploring with the medium anyway). There are fiber artists who use felt in their work, and maybe I'll do a post on the ones I know of at some point, but for the most part it is still considered a craft form to be relegated to the areas of etsy and artfire and county fairs. And there's nothing wrong with it at all. It's just something I keep going back and forth on, where my training was art and design, and craft is something I enjoy, and trying to marry the two together. So if you're the type who enjoys going to art museums and learning about artists and exploring the deeper meanings behind what some people might consider nothing more than artistically arranged piles of rope, I think you'll enjoy this review (and this book).

This exhibition is part of a series organized by the ICA that examines the polarity between craft and conceptual art that has existed in the contemporary art world since the mid-twentieth century. Glenn Adamson, whose essay appears in this catalogue, attributes this fissure to the disappearance of guilds in the Middle Ages and the subsequent rise of academics in the Renaissance. The rift, which was nearly healed in the 1930s at the Bauhaus in Germany and then further repaired at institutions such as Black Mountain College in North Carolina, is still grappled with by artists today. Fiber joins ICA exhibitions Josiah McElheny: Some Pictures of the Infinite (2012) and Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957 (upcoming) to bring to public and scholarly attention the work of extraordinary artists, schools and institutions who advance the reconciliation of art and craft. - Jill Medvedow, Ellen Matilda Poss Director

While you're expected to have some basic knowledge of art and artists (which, if you don't, google is your friend), there is some assistance in the book with exploring the art with the use of essays, prompting you to go back for second, third, and additional looks as you gain new paradigm shifts. This really helps those people who look at art, say "I don't understand art" or "I don't know what I'm looking at," helps to point out some of the things that are subtle and can be easily missed, and teaches you to look at it from a different perspective. As far as "understanding" it, I don't think some art is meant to be understood, it's just meant to evoke. I do recommend reading the essays and not just looking at the photos. While this can certainly be used as a coffee table book, you'd be missing a wealth of information that would push you to think a bit further as an artist.

Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present explores a number of amazing artists, all of varying styles making it easy to differentiate one from another in most cases. I initially thought I'd jump on here and focus on a favorite, except every time I looked at one and thought "OK, you're probably my favorite" then turn the page to find something even more amazing. That being said, I'd like to point out some of the artists whose works I enjoyed. But first, I'd like to share some thoughts that crossed my mind as I flipped through the book.

The first would be to note that the sheer scale of some of these installations is overwhelmingly impressive. I have never been one to work in large scale, mainly because I don't have the space to explore in that manner, so just trying to imagine the space needed to work in such a massive size, the materials necessary to do so, the dismantling and installing in an exhibit (or exhibits if it travels) - so much work goes into this. One in particular reminded me of how I wanted to set up my room when I was growing up, that being The Sun Lits Life, Let the Son by Ernesto Neto, a bright netting suspended from the ceiling with the occasional drips of hanging baskets/balls/planters. In High School I came across some bamboo (it grew wildly in the woods on the outer skirts of the neighborhood), which I suspended from the ceiling and hung fishing nets from that, with the occasional ornaments suspended from that. I wonder if Neto did something similar while planning out this installation. Another artist that caught my eye was Piotr Uklanski. His Untitled (Monster) looks incredibly familiar. To me it looks similar to the work of Marjolein Dallinga, though his looks to be mostly crocheted, while Dallinga works in felt. His Untitled (The Year We Made Contact) is a massive 210 inches by 480 inches by 60 inches, just to give you an idea of the size of some of these creations. 

Another thing worth noting is how the artists play on the visual cues of weight or weightlessness. While obviously most works of art are not meant to be touched, we are still able to feel the weight of it with our eyes. Dark and thick and dense works feel almost burdensome with some of the installations, such as Magdalena Abakanowicz's Zwart kleed (Black Dress), 1968, or comforting and womblike as with Barbara Shawcroft's Meditation Space, 1974, which I read weighs over 1000 pounds. Other installations, such as Elsi Giauque's Element spatial (Spacial Element), 1979, create a dialog between weightless and rigidity, which as you can imagine fiber is the last thing you might think of as attempting to look like glass. It also has an element of following the architectural trends of its time, and somewhat before its time, as I could see her work being installed in the Eames house for example. 

You'll also notice a difference in playfulness of the pieces. Some pieces are notably more serious in nature, using weight, dark color, thickness portraying evoking an almost somber feel. Others are more playful at initial glance, using bright colors and a lightness to it, in some cases tricking the eye and defying gravity, as with Xenobia Bailey's Sistah Paradise's Great Wall of Fire Revival Tent, 1993/1999/2009. However, as is often the case with art, there is a deeper story which sometimes challenges your initial perceptions. Maybe the somber pieces are far more welcoming than they initially present, and maybe the playful pieces have a deeper, more somber message attached to them after having drawn you into the art. It's the difference of seemingly outwardly appearing somber people with vibrant life stories just waiting to be heard, or of colorful carnivorous plants which trick you into feeling safe and comfortable. As the saying goes, never judge a book by its cover - the same applies here.

Towards the end of the book is a sort of recap of the artists featured in the exhibit catalog, with a spread dedicated to each one with not so much a CSV but a life story and artist statement to help give the reader yet another perspective on the works presented, this time from the artists themselves and not the essays written about them, which always have the author's bias attached. Just as my review has my own biases attached without any attempt on my part to do so. When exploring art, there is always more than one story. There is the artist's story, the "popular" or "expert" story/stories, and then your internal story. 

My final thought: if you are even remotely interested in expanding your knowledge about fiber art and searching for inspiration to take the next step from crafting the tangible to exploring the intangible, I think that this book is a very valuable source on the topic and will help to broaden your horizons. Personally, I've always been drawn to the new when it comes to art, and early adopter of sorts. While I do enjoy and appreciate traditional paintings and landscapes and fine art, it has always had a certain stuffiness to it for lack of better word. I just have a hard time seeing how that can be further explored without feeling like I'm just copying from the masters. Don't get me wrong, copying from the masters is definitely an important part of learning and studying art, and I somewhat long for the days when apprenticeships were not only recognized but revered almost more than an official degree from a public or private college. Even when I went to school for architecture, learning about all the greats, it's not the same as Frank Lloyd Wright who apprenticed under Joseph Lyman Silsbee. I always thought real world experience was of far greater value than listening to someone who has little real world experience telling you how the real world works. It's just not the same. But coming back from my tangent, sticking to fine art, for me personally, just seems like I wouldn't be pushing myself beyond perfecting my technique. On the outside, a tree is a tree is a tree. It's when that tree becomes part of a greater metaphorical narrative that it really grabs my interest. Fiber art is the same way for me. There are tapestries, and then there are tapestries. One is just a beautiful work of art/design, and the other makes you think. The choice really comes down to whether you enjoy being more of a passive observer or exploring and challenging your thoughts and perceptions. I have no judgments attached to either and think it's a matter of personal preference.

So what is your preference? Do you simply enjoy the craft and eye-pleasing objects or do you enjoy challenging perceptions and pushing yourself to explore your medium of choice?