The Fabric of Freedom, Redefined

Anila Rubiku's
Anila Rubiku's "Mastering Freedom #4" is one of several formal pieces sewn in paper. (The Heather And Tony Podesta Collection)
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By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 23, 2008

Why draw a line when you can sew one?

That question and many others run through "The Thread as the Line," an intriguing if rambling group show at Arlington's Ellipse Arts Center. Curated by Cynthia Connolly, the exhibition gathers a sampling of youngish artists -- most in their 20s and 30s -- working in variations of embroidery, crochet and quilting.

These 16 artists hail from destinations local (Matt Nelson, born in Fairfax) and international (Anila Rubiku, from Albania). A few are finishing art school (Valerie Molnar and Zac Monday). And one is a wildly successful fashion designer (Natalie Chanin, co-founder of the boho-chic, Vogue-endorsed, $20,000-a-gown Project Alabama label. She now runs her own boho-chic, soon-to-be-Vogue-endorsed line called Alabama Chanin).

The area hasn't seen a survey of fabric works as large as this one in recent years. Although our galleries have mounted smaller shows of sewn work or included "The Thread as the Line" artists in group shows (G Fine Art showed Sabrina Gschwandtner a few years ago; Molnar appeared at Carroll Square Gallery this year), an exhibition of this type is overdue.

Connolly calls her exhibition a "document" of artworks made with thread or yarn. As that word suggests, the show takes a hands-off approach. Connolly assumes no stance on the many approaches to material on view, nor does she posit why this kind of work is popular now. Instead, we wade largely unguided through a wide variety of work.

A curatorial road map might have made our journey a little easier, because here the approaches vary. Ask these artists why they work in fabric, and you'll get as many answers as participants.

One thing these artists aren't doing is making radical statements. That happened about 40 years ago, thanks to trailblazing 1970s-era feminists who took heat for raiding grandma's knitting supplies. Those who saw last year's "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts remember Faith Wilding's crocheted room and Harmony Hammond's stuffed ladders, among many other attempts to bring so-called "women's work" into the museum.

In "The Thread as the Line," youngsters recall their '70s-era foremothers and, sometimes, embrace their feminist agenda. Jennifer Boe addresses twin agents of female oppression: domesticity and the church. Her embroidered triptych mimics liturgical hangings, but with a catch: Cherubim encircle a vacuum cleaner in lieu of the Holy Virgin. Boe's is a clever gesture that rides the coattails of early feminists but doesn't advance their cause.

Other Big Issues addressed here include neo-hippie activism and its corollary, art as social interaction. You get a strong sense of it by watching Gschwandtner's video documenting a "KnitKnit Sundown Salon," where attractive young people teach each other to knit and purl. When not following the buzz and hum of happy knitters, the camera pans on rows of crocheted boots and dolls presumably knit by the participants. Gschwandtner's utopia suggests that art need only be a bunch of people hanging out. In many ways the most radical work here, it dismisses the gallery system entirely.

Area artist Brece Honeycutt's approach is similarly social. She visits public places and spins yarn, asking passersby to share their memories of fiber and thread. In "The Thread as the Line," the artist's spun yarn hangs on a gallery wall with a tiny video monitor nesting inside. A soundtrack capturing the artist's interviews -- one subject recalls his childhood in Ethiopia -- present fabric as Proustian madeleine.

Sewing and knitting still connote women, so the presence of five male artists is worth noting. Standouts here include Zac Monday's fantastical figures, including a marvelous tube-eyed blue monster. Steve Frost explores gender and sexuality by transforming gallery seating into beds; he also hangs wall works that, excepting their fabric content, behave very much like paintings.

Which brings us to another set of artists, those engaged not in Big Issues but formalist ones: line, color, composition and figure.

For her fantastical pictures of fashionable women standing -- yes -- on horseback, Rubiku sews into paper using colored thread. It's a lot like drawing with ink or pencil, but there's a tactility and presence to the fiber that makes each line pop. The sewn line links the series of four works called "Mastering Freedom" to the kooky kind of empowerment she's trying to evoke.

Other artists appear to adopt the niftiness of thread to divert us from the banality of their images -- a strategy decidedly less effective. One offender is Natalia Blanch, who presents an 18-panel series featuring stop-motion frames of a figure doing a truncated cartwheel. No amount of jazzy stitching salvages this one.

More interesting, ultimately, are artists such as Megan Whitmarsh, who embroiders naive-style retro scenes of mod young people interacting with Yeti (as in abominable snowmen). These scenes, which take place on brightly colored backgrounds that stand for museums or living rooms, have a sweetness to them that's underscored by the artist's homespun medium.

The formalist tendencies of Whitmarsh, Blanch and Rubiku would not have been possible without the work of feminist pioneers. Yet "The Thread as the Line" reveals how fabric -- once a signature feminist material, now embraced by artists with varied agendas -- entered an art world whose definition grows broader by the day.

The Thread as the Line at Ellipse Arts Center, 4350 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington, Wednesday-Friday 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 703-228-7710, to July 12;

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