The thing about fiber art is that it’s familiar. And therein lie its profound possibilities. You may not know the sensation of chiseling into hard marble or the smooth resistance of a paintbrush on canvas, but all of us are at home with the feel of fabric, yarn and thread. And chances are you have a family member with firsthand knowledge of quilting, knitting or sewing.
This time around, the 2012 Biennial at the Bellevue Arts Museum focuses on fiber art. It’s just the second biennial for the museum and it proves that BAM is on the right track to establishing a meaningful exhibition tradition. For each every-other-year show, the organizers identify a different medium, technique or theme that will foster discussion about the intersection of art, craft and design. For this year’s iteration, they wisely chose fiber art, which wraps up many strands of contemporary practice and fuses distinctions between art and craft.
The term describes work made with various materials (fabric, yarn, etc.), and techniques (felting, weaving, embroidery), as well as thematic associations (domestic arts, craft traditions, intimate forms such as bedding and clothing).
The 2012 Biennial received almost 300 proposals from around the Northwest (including Alaska, B.C., Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington), out of which BAM’s jurors selected 43 artists. The selections are compelling. There’s a vast variety of form and method, from the bold, large-scale (at almost 9 feet tall, I do mean large scale) crocheted yarn portraits by Jo Hamilton to the wearable but deeply expressive clothes by Michael Cypress to the gorgeous and disturbing video by Amanda Manitach in which the artist embroiders a lamb’s tongue with glittering black beads.
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One of the more surprising entries comes from Margie Livingston, who is well-known for her intricate abstract paintings. Here, she has gotten rid of the canvas altogether, creating sheets of acrylic paint which she folds and stacks like bundles of laundry. These painting-sculptures call attention to the fabric substrate of many paintings while showcasing the paint, which swirls and pools amid the folds.
There are some slight missteps in the show. I really wanted to like Sheila Klein’s installation of nylon mesh panels that you can pull along curtain tracks into various configurations. The idea is fantastic, putting you in control of creating sensual and immersive mazes or interior spaces. But the effect doesn’t quite live up to the vision, thwarted by the flimsy pulling system and the limited possibilities of panel arrangement.
One of the most important works in the exhibition is Rock Hushka’s re-creation of his studio. A frame supports one of his embroidery pieces in progress and there is music from Hushka’s collection playing softly in the background. Hushka, a curator at the Tacoma Art Museum and an artist in his own right, works in this installation every Friday from 1-5 p.m. and Sunday from 12:30-4:30 p.m. But even without his performances, the chair awaiting his presence and the framed fabric awaiting his touch, remind us of the painstaking process of much fiber work. That Hushka is a man, and a curator of contemporary art, who is deeply engaged in a very traditional — and traditionally feminine — applied arts form, affixes the simple installation with other layers of meaning.
“High Fiber Diet” offers many moments of recognition and dissonance, as the artists play with and against our expectations of these familiar fibers and forms.