Our state is a national hub for fine craft, home to a host of internationally known artisans and a number of discipline-specific, widely acclaimed arts centers – places like Northern Clay Center, the Textile Center of Minnesota, Highpoint Center for Printmaking, American Association of Woodturners and Minnesota Center for Book Arts. The American Craft Council makes its home in Minneapolis. Given that regional heritage, it’s only fitting that (Knight Arts grantee) Minnesota Museum of American Art’s collection is also known for an emphasis on craft.
With that in mind, I went into MMAA’s group show, “Repetition and Ritual: New Sculpture in Fiber,” expecting to see top-shelf work, and I wasn’t disappointed. Curated by artist Sonya Yong James, the exhibition includes work by 15 artists whose work belies a firm distinction between craft and fine art. Indeed, these are conceptual rather than utilitarian works, tangible meditations on the body, on life and decay. There’s an unmistakable concern with gender and domesticity here as well and, in a number of pieces, an evident interest in the carnal realities of womanhood, in particular.
According to the gallery statement, considering the sheer breadth of contemporary textile and fiber work, James narrowed the focus of her show to showcase the labor involved in such practice, specifically choosing “artists who use the fiber medium for sculptural work characterized by exceedingly painstaking, repetitive processes.”
Walk into the show, and your fingers immediately itch to touch. And no wonder, given the riot of textures within reach: thick wool roving, nubby bead work, tangles of knotted thread and bundled silk. There are vessels of stiff horsehair and little baskets woven with shreds of paper money or desiccated hog gut. Over here’s a “hand-sewn painting” made of grosgrain ribbons and vintage linens; there’s a pair of soft, ovoid forms – smooth, flesh-tone nylons stuffed with cotton fill. Traditional techniques, like crocheting and embroidery, are used throughout the exhibition in unexpected ways. But no matter the methods or materials, needle and thread are still primary, as are the sensations and cleverness of hands at work, cutting and stitching.
At the entry way, Sonya Yong James’ own work rests on the floor: a mound of silk organza in shades of pink and mauve and red, gathered and stitched into uncanny puckers, like mouths agape growing from the swell of luxe fabric. Around the corner, on the white gallery wall, is another fetching piece: Susan Cipcic’s installation in black cotton blend knit – deconstructed thrift store sweaters, all the same shade of black, the raveling yarn hung in scalloped sweeps, like a dark flock of birds in flight.
I find myself returning several times to Amy Gross’s “Red Collection,” a blood-red assortment of mounted, vaguely organic curiosities. They’re captivating and almost familiar, at once delicate and grotesque. Some are bristling with shells or what look like spiny sea creatures; most are encrusted with tiny red beads and mossy fur. A few are adorned with bug-eaten leaves; one is topped with a bouquet of snail-like eye-stalks; others sprout mushrooms or coral-like protuberances. All of them are compelling, lovely if not quite wholesome.
It’s hard to pull off a coherent group show, in any discipline, and the fact that the various pieces in “Repetition and Ritual” play so well together is itself no mean feat. It’s a thoughtful selection of work, eclectic and full of surprising, well-executed innovations on form and technique.
“Repetition and Ritual,” curated by Sonya Yong James, is on view at Minnesota Museum of American Art’s Project Space, 332 North Robert St., St. Paul, through January 19. For gallery hours and more information about the exhibition and its participating artists, visit the website: http://mmaa.org/pages/RepetitionRitual.