“What I am trying to get across is that material is a means of communication.”
An exhibition entitled Material as Metaphor, currently at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, brings together eleven contemporary West Coast sculptors (Lloyd Hamrol, Victoria May, Lisa C Soto, Joel Allen, Miyoshi Barosh, Mary Little, Phyllis Green, Christy Matson, Senga Nengudi, Kay Whitney, May Wilson) who mostly use non-traditional materials such as industrial felt, vinyl, pantyhose, found thrift store crocheted blankets, rubber inner tubes, and other organic or manufactured items to create the predominately soft, sensuous, and idiosyncratic free standing and wall pieces.
The only disappointment of an otherwise inventive, engrossing, and beautifully installed and curated show is Lloyd Hamrol’s (the grand old man of this group) site- specific piece entitled “Cascade,” 2017. It is comprised of large disc’s of neutral burnt umber industrial felt that suggests the flow of a waterfall by overlapping the flat mesa-like discs as they amble, one laid over the other, from up high to the floor. “Cascade” has antecedents in both Lynda Benglis’ poured latex gray sculptures from the late sixties, which slide down the wall to puddle and harden on the gallery floor, and Robert Morris’ work in industrial felt from the late sixties to the mid seventies. Unfortunately, this understated sculpture is displayed in the lobby on the ground floor where I saw children sitting on it. It would have benefitted from another less busy placement alongside the others on the second floor.
Heading into the upstairs gallery, the first works one sees is Victoria May’s free standing sculpture that has the oxymoronic title “Open Cage” (2011-13, spring tempered steel, pins, cotton twill tape, assembled hardware) that is reminiscent of the “cage crinolines” worn by Victorian and Southern women in the nineteenth century. These undergarments were constructed of rings of steel attached with string and were nearly architectural in design to help distribute the enormous weight of the hoop gowns in order to make them bearable. May literally uses the same materials here to construct her curvaceous, looming but ultimately strapped-down image of a dressmaker’s dummy totem pole. It is covered with translucent beige fabric, thus allowing the viewer to see both the inside and the outside simultaneously – hence an “open” cage. This is a delightful riff on the tyranny of beauty and the restrictions that women have had to endure in the past, and also in the present, to be considered beautiful and fashionable.
Three of her other three pieces shown nearby are wall reliefs and all are witty and humorous, especially the monochromatic “Large Fetish” (2014). Elegantly constructed only with used inner tubes and thread, it is quite gorgeous and almost looks like an undulating landscape. The title makes me think that perhaps it is a sly nod to Robert Mapplethorpe and his infamous homoerotic pictures (which often involve subjects swathed in rubber outfits).
Other works also reference the human body, none more amusing than Senga Nengudi’s “RSVP Revereie A,” (nylon pantyhose, sand, mesh screen, 2011), which might be a self-portrait of sorts. Nengudi cleverly uses the different beiges, browns and blacks of the pantyhose to great effect here – especially in the creative way she has sculpted curly hair. There are allusions to some possibly saggy (sand filled) breasts, and skinny legs. It is an altogether charming use of everyday materials to suggest the frailties and vulnerabilities (panty hose can tear) of the female human body.
May Wilson’s idiosyncratic “Slunk,” (vinyl, carbon fiber, steel strapping, 2017) reminds me of the alien heptapods (minus four of their legs) from the movie “Arrival.” Sleek and beautifully crafted, there are three black vinyl tube-like legs, slightly wobbly, which are attached by yellow steel strapping towards the top. At each top end there is a pinkish “cuff” slightly open. About the size of a five-foot six person, this slightly goofy piece is very animated and you expect it to saunter off at any moment.
Miyoshi Barosh’s “Rainbow of Tears,” (found afghans and polyester fiberfill, 2015) is relentlessly optimistic and wildly colorful, in direct contradiction to the title which refers to the afghans being relegated to thrift stores. The press release says “…her materials symbolize unrequited love and devotion, selfless labor, and useless attempts to cheer others up despite the reality of a harsh world.” This is not what I would have presumed from the bold and highly patterned, pendulous forms (meant to replicate teardrops but suggesting other forms such as guitars). In this installation, where most of the sculptures are muted in color, or even monochromatic, this feisty sculpture demands and gets much attention.
In direct contrast are designer Mary Little’s gorgeously quiet wall hangings literally made from artist unbleached canvas (usually used as a surface for paintings) and thread. Irish born (hence her titles), Mary Little has been a furniture maker and so these cloth sculptures, which lie flat on the wall, are a happy and successful departure. “Flanagan,” (2016) is based on a slightly irregular grid (reminds me of some of Eva Hesse’s latex grid pieces), and the light and shadows here are an important player in the delectation of the work. “O’Dogherty” (2016-7) is a giant ruffle of a piece, with a slightly frayed cut edge, which resembles cilia, adding to the visual pleasure here. Stunning craftsmanship is again evident for my favorite piece entitled “Dunbar,” which looks like a shroud. In the center of the piece are folds/pouches that are evenly spaced and sag towards the floor. There are delicate parallel lines that connect with the pouches – almost creating an optical illusion effect. The image that is created by the repetition of the folds suggests a human body, or a shroud covering a body. Little’s heroic restraint with her work is quite rewarding and ultimately very spiritual.
Kay Whitney’s sophisticated body of work with materials such as plywood, felt, grommets, steel rings and eyebolts is very reminiscent of Robert Morris’s industrial felt sculptures from the sixties and seventies (although Morris often used whole sheets of industrial felt and Whitney uses preformed long thin fingers of felt). Whitney, in her large free standing work entitled “Vault and Big BB,” (2016) attaches felt strips from the ceiling to hang down and fan out – much the same as Morris did years ago – in a kind of maypole shape. At the base, the free hanging strips of felt attach to small plywood tables themselves, then on a platform. Whitney’s other three sculptures are all attached to the wall with wire and they fan out gracefully –almost like upside-down suspension bridges. All of Whitney’s vibrant works elegantly carve out space, as the long, ribbon-like felt pieces transform into three-dimensional drawings. The many interstices in all of the works and the interplay of light and shadow are artfully exploited by hanging the work three inches from the wall is essential. Theatrically lit and beautifully installed, these are undeniably dramatic and stately.
The most traditional of all these artists is Christy Matson, whose handwoven tapestries most resemble refined and muted generally abstracted paintings.
Created on a jacquard loom, these polished works stand out with their subtle and understated use of color. “Untitled (Pyramid)” (2017, cotton, wool, linen and natural dye) references the shaped canvases of the sixties by stacking square textile covered surfaces in a way that they resemble a pyramid. The delicate, nuanced surface reminds me of the stained canvases of Helen Frankenthaler, as one color appears to seep into another. In this cacophonous group of sculptures, whose structures are typically cobbled together from disparate parts (sewn, stitched, tied, stapled, bolted, and wrapped), these works can seem almost out of place – like a quiet guest at a noisy dinner party.
One case in point, situated across from the classic Matson weavings, is yet another sculpture from the wildly versatile Victoria May. Called “Studies in Convulsion,” this 2014 work is composed of tire inner tubes, thread, handmade silk and polyester cording. Four abstracted but vaguely figurative tubelike soft sculptures are placed on a ledge at angles that suggest interaction. Each “figure” has a tangle of yellow cords spilling messily out of the top and bottom of the piece. Reclining on a ledge, these pieces resemble nothing more than bored teenagers slouching around somewhere and tied up in knots inside. It seems an apt metaphor for human existence, as we all seem to be trying to hold it together. It reminds me of a few lines from the Yeats’ poem, “Second Coming:” Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
For all of these artists the meaning of their work is directly related to the materials they use, be they found, manufactured or created. This is a delightful and thoughtful exhibit that is worth seeing.
Nancy Kay Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.