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Green: the Color and the Cause

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Editorial Review

Exhibition review: ‘Green: The Color and the Cause’

By Michael O’Sullivan
Thursday, June 30, 2011

Given that the Te xtile Museum’s two previous color-themed exhibitions were organized around primary colors — “Red” in 2007 and “Blue” in 2008 — you might expect the third installment in the series to be all about yellow. But the museum has thrown viewers a subtle curve with “Green: The Color and the Cause,” a beautiful, thought-provoking and timely showcase of traditional and contemporary textile works, spotlighting not just a variety of verdant hues, but also the ideas underlying the environmental movement.

In other words, there’s green, and then there’s “green.”

Into the first category fall such works as a Japanese man’s formal kimono, or noshime, dating from the late 18th or early 19th century. The subtly puckered fabric is simply green (albeit a deep, sober shade). Like most of the historical works on view, its color is the product of a two-step process: dipping it first in indigo dye and then in yellow. The only exception in the show is a scrap of 19th-century Chinese embroidery. The iridescent green of its background comes from peacock feathers, painstakingly stripped into delicate filaments and wrapped around individual threads. Be sure and use the provided magnifying glass for a close look.

Jodi Colella’s “One Day” falls into the second category. One of 32 contemporary artists in the show, Colella works in a medium that is almost as labor-intensive as that of the anonymous peacock-feather artist. She collects, by the hundreds, discarded plastic sleeves used to deliver newspapers. Then she shreds them into thin strips and spins them into fiber, which she has crocheted into a shaggy, biomorphic sculpture. There’s hardly any green in it, but it’s very “green.”

Works that are green in both senses of the word include a luxurious women’s jacket from 19th-century Persia. The two shades of almost chartreuse silk on the exterior are complemented by upturned, ruby-red cuffs that were once part of a woolen shawl. (For more examples of vintage recycling, don’t miss the thematically related show on the museum’s second floor: “Second Lives: The Age-Old Art of Recycling Textiles.”)

Frugality — the old-fashioned name for the philosophy of “reduce, reuse, recycle” — is nothing new. The preciousness of resources, both natural and man-made, is a powerful theme here.

So is asking questions.

Several of the most provocative works are the least green, color-wise. Take William Knight’s “Wall Tapestry.” Woven and knotted together from thin strands of exploded rubber tires that the artist collected off the New Jersey Turnpike, it’s an abstract tangle of black beauty, as well as an epitome of “green” thinking.

At first glance, a black embroidered swing coat by the women’s couture label Alabama Chanin seems neither literally nor symbolically green. Yet the small company, which uses local, organic and recycled fabrics, is also known for paying a living wage to its workers — women who range in age from their 20s to their 70s, who work communally in quilting-bee-like groups. Social responsibility is as much a part of being “green” as environmental responsibility.

Ironically, as anyone who has shopped at Whole Foods knows, doing the right thing doesn’t always come cheap. The coat retails for $3,875.

Other can’t-miss artworks include Shigeo Kubota’s “Shape of Green II,” a steeple-shaped structure of woven sisal and fishing line. Evoking both temple architecture and a rocket ship, it’s a striking emblem of reverence and hope for the future of our planet, and for us.

Another strong thread running through “Green” is interconnectedness. Kristina Estell’s “Enmesh,” for example, consists of dead, skeletonized leaves displayed — one by one, like specimens in a laboratory experiment — in an array of soft mesh “beakers.”

The leaves are far from green. But Estell’s piece, which seems a metaphor for our often clinical detachment from nature, serves as a potent reminder — both of our own mortality and of the threads that bind each of us to the larger tapestry of life.

The story behind ‘Arbor Lace’

A visit to “Green: The Color and the Cause” wouldn’t be complete without a stop in the Textile Museum’s walled garden, and not just to take in the scenery. For the first time, part of the current exhibition is outside, growing.

It’s called “Arbor Lace.” The installation, by artist Michele Brody, consists of a small walk-in structure whose walls are formed by lace pouches containing a mixture of soil and grass seeds. The pouches hang from a frame of copper pipes that deliver a steady trickle of water to the grass.

Planted June 4, the vertical garden can already be seen poking through the holes in the lace. But it won’t last forever. After six weeks or so, the grass blades will start to wither and die as the nutrients in the shallow soil are depleted. At that point, the museum plans to replant it one last time, before ultimately dismantling “Arbor Lace” a week before the show inside closes.

It’s all very pretty. But it’s also meant to invite contemplation. Depending on when you visit, you’ll see a greenhouse that is — quite literally — either flourishing or failing.

— Michael O’Sullivan