Newberg show by Surface Design Association obliterates old notions about fiber arts
Each of the past five years has seen at least one interesting and occasionally soaring fiber arts show at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, and we begin 2023 by catching up with one that opened last month. The Surface Design Association, a virtual community that boasts 5,000 members in more than 40 countries, tapped Oregon to showcase its annual competition, and you can see it at the Chehalem center through Jan. 27.
Forecast//Recast occupies the Parrish Gallery, the center’s largest exhibition space, and features nearly 30 pieces of fiber, textile, and mixed-media art that, like much of the fabric work exhibited here in recent years, happily obliterates old-fashioned notions about embroidery art and craft.
Consider, for example, Mindy Goodman’s No Exchange, a sculptural piece with rings and swirls caressing the gently curved surface of what appears to be some organic thing, like a section of intestine from some unknown or perhaps imaginary creature with the ends unnaturally bloated. It’s a strange, ineffable piece that seems to quietly but insistently demand engagement.
Or consider Linda Anderson’s breathtaking Finding Comfort, which fooled me for a moment into thinking that a painting had for some reason snuck into an exhibition of fabric arts. It depicts three boys, obviously friends, taking a break from laborious work, but also taking solace in the fact that they’re at least in it together. “Knowing that so many children around the world are deprived of the kind of childhood that many of us take for granted,” the artist writes, “my heart was painfully drawn to the faces and gestures these boys shared with each other as they worked in the brickyard.”
As it turns out, paint was involved. I had to know, so I looked Anderson up and asked.
“The whole piece is fabric,” she told me, describing four or five months of six-days-a-week work in a few sentences. “It’s done in raw-edge applique technique with ‘free motion’ stitching. Each piece and color area is originally a white fabric I’ve painted for its location in the total image, and then assembled as you would a puzzle. So the entire piece is painted and then stitched. Hence, I call them ‘stitched paintings’ versus a quilt.”
In a similar painterly vein, Mary Pal’s A World of Difference depicts Sir David Attenborough, host of the celebrated BBC documentary series A Life on Our Planet. The artist rendered his visage with exquisitely shredded pieces of cheesecloth on a hand-painted cotton canvas from a photograph of Attenborough by Sam Faulkner.
These and any number of other pieces in Forecast//Recast nicely illustrate why fiber arts are “having a moment in the art world in general.” That’s according to Karena Bennett, a Portland resident who heads the Surface Design Association, which organizes several shows annually and partners with artists who are active in regional groups such as Columbia FiberArts Guild.
The fiber scene is finding its way into an increasing number of exhibitions in contemporary museums and galleries nationwide, she said. The trend coincides with another: Fiber-focused academic programs have been shuttered, nudging the medium into broader programs where more artists encounter it and incorporate fiber and textiles into multidisciplinary work.
“I also think there’s renewed interest in the studio craft movement and focus on handmade, one-of-a-kind objects,” she told me. “Fiber and textiles are also at the heart of discussions around sustainability, environmental impact, and material innovation. Lastly, I think the current fiber art movement really celebrates and draws attention to the rich cultural tradition of fiber. Every culture has its own fiber tradition, and many artists are bringing those traditions to the forefront of contemporary fiber art, which is exciting.”
The show’s pieces were selected by guest juror Tanya Aguiñiga, an artist and designer who has split her time between Southern California, where she was born, and Tijuana, Mexico, working on collaborations, performances and community-based projects. According to the show notes, Forecast//Recast invited artists to explore “ideas of predicting, reshaping, and re-predicting — works that offer a glimpse of possible futures, re-examine historical narratives, shed light on needed social and ecological interventions, and bend inquiry towards new aims to reframe the way we view the world.”
“The premise made me think deeply about the current state of our Earth and global societies, and how as artists our work is deeply important as a source of healing, recording histories, and reshaping how to live justly,” Aguiñiga said. In reviewing the nearly 400 submissions, she was “moved by the vulnerability and urgency exhibited in works.”
Ecological devastation, violent control of women, COVID, and race are among the issues that find expression in the hangings, quilts, and sculptures that fill the gallery. Many point to the interdisciplinary path on which fiber has intersected with other media, such as Los Angeles artist Charlotte Schmid-Maybach’s Flying Over Land II. She has meticulously sewed metallic thread into an archival photographic print on Japanese kozo paper of a crumbling military bunker, Fort Worden, in Puget Sound. Like so many of the pieces in Forecast//Recast, it demands that you look closer.
Schmid-Maybach’s background is in photojournalism, but a few years ago she started studying with L.A. painter Tom Wudl and, with a group of other women, incorporated fabric into her work. “It was like art school for me,” she said. “Even though he’s a painter, he’s a great teacher and has been a mentor to me.”
Virginia-based mixed-media artist Jayne Gaskins turns her eye toward homelessness with a simple, stark fabric piece depicting a man huddled with blankets and a bag in an alley. In On the Streets Where I Live, fabric depicts itself, although she indicated that she didn’t necessarily choose styles or colors to match anything from the original photograph. “All my work starts with at least one photo, and the graphic designer in me is never going to give up digital manipulation, I enjoy it too much,” she said. “I use these and the tactile nature of fabrics to go beyond thoughts and expose core emotions and raw feelings.”
Inevitably, the visitor approaching Forecast//Recast from the lobby will be drawn to the largest piece in the exhibition: a sprawling, floor-to-ceiling quilt by Montana artist Maggy Rozycki Hiltner. Titled Superfun(d), it functions as a Grand Guignol snapshot of the environmental devastation that can be found across the country.
Two skeletons, one on each side of the big-top-style display, pull curtains back to reveal a series of stacked posters styled after vintage posters advertising carnival and circus acts. In other words, garish displays of celebration and artifice, but used here as apocalyptic cue cards on topics including radiation, cancer, pesticides, lead poisoning, various types of pollution, and climate change.
Modeled on The Artist in His Museum, an 1822 painting by Revolutionary War-era artist Charles Willson Peale, Superfun(d) spectacularly pulls the curtain back on the horrifying ecological cost of nearly 250 years of European colonialism.
“I have encouraged my fellow artists, many of them women, to use their platform and artform to say something,” Rozycki Hiltner said. “Many art quilters come from a decorative or traditional quilting background, or perhaps they are women of a certain age not used to using their voices out in the world. I guess that’s my observation. Yes, make it beautiful or amazing or fun or technically astounding, but art is always about something.”