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Talking Art: In the Narrative

One of the generally accepted ideas about visual art is that it’s suppose to be...visual. Artists supposedly convey ideas and emotions that are so deep, so close to the bone, that they cannot be described by words. Ergo, visual art. The consensus being that visual art is impervious to the written word; it can stand on its own quite well, thank you very much.

A wag, then, might have had a chortle over COCA’s recent fiber exhibition in the Millstone Gallery, In the Narrative: Textiles Object/Word. Setting aside momentarily the positive/negative question of narrative in visual art, this expansive show gave viewers a satisfying synopsis of the fiber arts genre. Arching over the rainbow from bits of beaded kitsch, to roughhewn puzzles devised of thorny branches, to diaphanous weavings in gold and silver, the range of textiles informed viewers of a media limited only by the imagination.

First encountered on the south wall of the gallery, Marilyn Pappas’ work told of fragmented hearts and shattered history, none of which can be pieced back together without telltale traces. Her sheet of linen background held larger than life relics from Greco/Roman antiquity. Painstakingly embroidered in the soft hues of marble and wheat, emblazoned with gold thread, the goddess of triumph was nonetheless shattered. The Corinthian column framing her, fractured. “What cost victory?” hovered overhead in a banner.

Is the question moot, or superfluous? Does it even need to be asked, given the emotions and anguish that current foreign policy has delivered to all? This opens the door to musings about how artists perceive both their work and their audiences. Do they design words into their work as signifiers, keys to help unlock the Pandora’s box of meaning? Or are they visual flavorings, meant to be tasted (as by a gourmand) but not necessarily analyzed (as by a chemist)? If the words are read, and the viewer then derives a more nuanced sense of appreciation for the work, does this mean that it is a visually compromised piece, since it relies on narrative to bolster its impact?

Arguably, Kate Anderson did not grapple too deeply with these questions as she curated the show. The driving factors seemed to be aesthetic diversity and poly-techniques. Otherwise, how would one juggle the earthy naturalism of Gyongy Laky, the poetic exoticism of Kiyomi Iwata, and the beaded fantasies of Tom and Kathy Wegman into a single show? The juxtaposition between them is startling; some might say refreshing. The only binders that hold them together are the code words “narrative” and “fiber.”

With her direct approach to hard work, hand-built objects, and humble materials, Laky reminds one of another well-known stick-weaver, Patrick Dougherty. The particular piece that represented her in this exhibit was diminutive compared to her usual scale of work. The almost two-dimensional piece, simple in pattern and spare in design, left enough unsaid in its single word to cause a moment of reflection. It was a puzzle cleverly disguised within its own confines, so that, when visiting the gallery, a group of school children were thoroughly engaged, trying to decipher the geometrically graphed “peace,” hidden in plain view among the twigs.

Combining the archaic tradition of beading with technology of the 21st century, Ruth McCorrison has been creating tiny tapestries of shimmering glass seeds. By transferring digital photos, and aided with computer color-mapping, she is able to scale complex nighttime photographs into handwoven images that almost defy the eyes. If seeing is believing, there still is something surreal about her works—like a mirage or optical illusion, the clarity of the image is lost when seen in proximity, but the outlines come sharply into focus when seen from a certain distance. The nostalgic, diner-and-neon subjects seem all the more dreamy in the iridescent colors of glass beads.

The use of words was transparent in some of the pieces—quite literally, as in Luanne Rimel’s and Kiyomi Iwata’s multilayered works. And yet, in some they were barely even implied, save for the title cards hung demurely nearby. Had the exhibit not stated the theme, it could quite possibly have been lost on some visitors. And yet, would that have been a tragedy? Like the use of words within an artwork, is it a question that challenges the viewer, or the artist, of clarity and perception?

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