FABRICation; curated by Reni Gower and Kristy Deetz; Academy Art Museum, Easton, MD; April 22-July 9, 2017

Review by Mary McCoy, Independent Artist, Writer and Curator

Window. Erin E. Castellan, 2013. Acrylic/latex paint, yarn, thread, fabric, 59 x 46, inches. © Erin Castellan and Courtesy of the artist.

FABRICation, recently on view at the Academy Museum of Art in Easton, MD, presents the work of 7 women who embrace fabrics, textiles, and slow handwork as a means of promoting introspection and reflection on the viewer’s part. The exhibition artists and print materials all speak to the ability of slow handwork to counter the passive and inattentive looking promoted by our fast-paced digital world.

After its debut at the 2013 annual meeting of SECAC, a total of 12 – 14 venues had been scheduled. As originally planned, West Virginia University, the Academy Art Museum, and Bowling Green were the last three stops. Consisting of 19 works by the 7 artists, it is possible that each venue only showed part of the total number of available works listed in the original prospectus. Co-curated by Reni Gower, a professor of Painting and Printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Kristy Deetz, a professor in the Art discipline at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, the exhibition had partial funding support from Virginia Commonwealth University and VCUarts Painting and Printmaking department. A web site indicates that an exhibition catalogue is still available (http://www.blurb.com/b/5592092-fabrication). 

Traditional fiber arts are well represented, albeit stretched far beyond their customary functionality, in Susan Iverson’s richly hued abstractions of lush trees and sunlight handwoven as looped strips of fabric, and in quilts by Rachel Hayes and Virginia Derryberry. Hayes references abstract painting and minimalism in her huge quilt stitched from multi-colored, varyingly transparent rectangles of fabric and vinyl, while Derryberry conjures complex stories about identity and the stages of life’s passages using quilting, embroidery and trapunto partnered with drawing and found object art, in this case actual dresses painstakingly stitched into place.

As Jessica Hemmings writes in an essay titled “Slow Looking” that is included in the unpaginated exhibition catalogue, fabrication has more than one meaning. A fabrication can be a deception. “The works in the show aren’t what they seem, and that is, to some extent, their point.”

Deetz, Castellan, Smith and Gower comment more directly on painting processes in their work. Deetz parodies Western art’s penchant for realistic illusion with tromp l’oeil fabric that disintegrates into a network of loose brushstrokes up close, while Gower “explodes” mid-20th-century painting techniques with densely overlapping strips of fabric, screening and plastic exuberantly brushed and painted with Crayola-bright colors. Natalie Smith takes on the process of bridging abstraction with the materiality of found objects in a spare painting of small crosses that dissolves into a web of string and bits of colored cloth.

In the wall text accompanying Erin E. Castellan’s amorphous fabric pieces saturated with paint whose drips and gestural sweeps are augmented with dense patches of embroidery, she writes of “slow viewing,” a practice as essential to understanding and enjoying art as it is to life. Like all the show’s artists, she intimately engages in the physical process of working in order to hone her awareness of how colors, shapes and gestures make us feel, and how art can take us into realms where it becomes possible to contemplate the richly complex relationships underlying human existence.

The final deception may be an attempt to find a feminist message in this show. Fully aware of the stigma, “women’s work,” historically attached to textile art, these artists set aside issues of gender and marginalization and instead craftily use the “feminine” association of hand-fabrication to contrast with the passive states our various digital screens encourage.

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Mary McCoy is an environmental artist, writer and curator who has contributed to The Washington Post, Sculpture, American Craft, New Art Examiner and other publications. She currently serves as Artist-in-Residence at Adkins Arboretum, Ridgely, MD.