Subverting the dominant paradigm, one stitch at a time

The Bayeux Tapestry dates back to the 11th century, so you can’t really say that high art appreciation of fiber work is new. There’s a big difference, though, between validating a giant record of European military conquest and the recent explosion of curatorial interest in quilting, knitting, embroidery, and clothing. Mrinalini Mukherjee’s monumental draped fabric monstrosities and Bisa Butler’s stunningly vivid hyper-patterned portraits use fiber to explore, celebrate, and mutate stereotypically domestic craftwork. Nick Cave’s gracefully bulky and jaw-droppingly adorned Soundsuits dance and trundle across the line between fashion and sculpture. In each case, fabric is the needle that pokes through rigid male, and often rigid white, assumptions about art to wear and art to stare at, pretty things in the home, and profound truths in the gallery.

The pretty and the profound are woven together in “Fiber-Fashion-Feminism,” the forthcoming exhibit at The Art Center Highland Park, which runs from April 29 to June 11. In celebration, the gallery will be returning to live in-person events with its 62nd birthday party and annual spring benefit, this year titled Common Thread. The combined opening and event will include music by DJ Tess and a fashion show featuring Chicago creators Katrin Schnabl and Maria Pinto (who has previously designed for Michelle Obama).

Curated by Caren Helene Rudman in consultation with Anne Wilson of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Fiber and Material Studies, the exhibit itself features a generous selection of work from nine contributing fiber artists: Schnabl, Pinto, Nneka Kai, Jennifer Markowitz, Laura Morrison, Marty Ornish, Nirmal Raja, Yana Schnitzler, and Ginny Sykes.

Fiber-Fashion-Feminism
On view Fri 4/29-Sat 6/11, Mon-Sat 10 AM-4 PM and Sun by appointment. At the Art Center Highland Park, 1957 Sheridan, Highland Park, 847-432-1888, theartcenterhp.org

Laura Morrison’s piece Don’t Touch functions as a warm bow, or a curtsy, to the Bayeux Tapestry: it’s a knit brown sweater-like covering that evokes a breastplate draped over a mannequin torso. Morrison has said that she often finds gallery-goers “petting” her work on the sly. The title is a further taboo enticement, even as the fabric armor suggests both invitation and defensiveness. The gallery makes fiber more canonical and less reachable, even as fiber makes the gallery more familiar and more tactile.

Portal, an artwork by Katrin Schnabl Credit: Courtesy Katrin Schnabl

Morrison’s work fuzzily foregrounds its fabric materiality. Schnabl’s works like Portal, in contrast, encourage a kind of fiber double take. The installation is a rectangular box covered in flowing abstract shapes. It takes a moment to realize that what you’re looking at is fabric draped over a frame. It’s like a specialized stand wearing a diaphanous covering for modesty—though not that much modesty, since the fabric is see-through, allowing the shapes on opposite sides to float over each other like fish passing in a pool. The piece nods to Schnabl’s work as a fashion designer; it’s essentially clothes without a person to wear them. That’s a comment perhaps on how high art has historically separated sensuality from bodies through various methods of abstraction, in contrast to the supposedly less authentic, but arguably more honest, practices of fashion.

Yana Schnitzler’s approach is again completely different. Her Tales of a Phoenix: The Letting Go Project is the record of a collaborative performance. Schnitzler invited women from across the country and the world to send her pieces of fabric stating or representing things they want to let go of. Over seven weeks at Chashama, a gallery in Manhattan’s Garment District, she stitched them all together into an enormous, room-sized skirt. After Tales of a Phoenix tours through 2022, Schnitzler is planning to perform a dance while wearing the skirt and then destroy it. Domestic and fiber arts traditionally have been created for use, rather than for eternal preservation, and Schnitzler’s Letting Go Project threads that history into her art about process, collaboration, and community. 

The Art Center touts “Fiber-Fashion-Feminism” as cutting edge, and that’s accurate. But part of what’s cutting edge about fiber art is the way that it inevitably braids the history of women’s labor and art into current practice. Whether it’s Nneka Kai’s taut organic threaded abstractions or Marty Ornish’s sustainable baroque patchwork clothes, fiber can be an avant-garde art form that makes a gallery feel like home for people who haven’t always been allowed to live there.

Common Thread: 2022 Spring Benefit for the Art Center Highland Park
Fri 4/29, 7 PM, at the Center (1957 Sheridan, Highland Park). $175 includes a fashion show, cocktails, passed appetizers and desserts, demos by center art faculty, and music by DJ Tess. Tickets and online raffle items at one.bidpal.net/commonthread.

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