The best artists trying a new medium

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Why not try something different?

This seemingly modest suggestion has drawn generations of artists to the Fabric Workshop and Museum residency program in Philadelphia over the years. The invitation has given rise to exhibitions where, for example, a sculptor has explored dance, a videographer has dabbled in sculpture, and artists of all stripes have explored screen printing on fabric. His best shows have been deep and extensive explorations of the desires and ambitions of a single artist at the time of the show, including successes and failures.

“Hard / Cover”, on view until September 26, is a group exhibition – partly retrospective and partly new – that documents how some artists have responded over time to the invitation to innovate. Most artists are best known for working in ceramics. All of them have used FWM’s screen printing facilities and the assistance of artist-technicians to produce variations or, more often, backgrounds for the works for which they are best known. It was organized in collaboration with the Clay Studio.

The result is a show which, at its best, provides insight into the thinking and working methods of the featured artists. Its implicit promise is to illuminate the nature of two different mediums, mainly ceramics and textiles. In almost all cases, however, the textiles on display are less interesting than the works of the artists in their usual media.

There is a happy surprise, so you might as well start with that. Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) is not known as a ceramicist but as one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. Pregnant woman (2002) is a small work, the size of a baby squeeze toy, to which it strongly resembles. It also has echoes of the Paleolithic “Venus” which have been found in archaeological sites across Europe and which are believed to be the earliest sculptures of mankind.

The fabric that wraps this tiny sculpture looks like terrycloth, and here the fabric makes all the difference. He domesticates the form of an ancient stone fertility symbol into something soft and intimate. Bourgeois does it more like a toy, but also more like a baby. Working with fabric inspired her to create something new.

The first works in the exhibition were made by Betty Woodman (1930-2018) in the early 1980s. At the time, Woodman was one of a handful of ceramic artists who left functional objects behind to get started. in pure sculpture. But even as she stepped away from containers and dishes, when challenged to work with textiles, she chose to design a colorful tablecloth and napkins as part of a job called Food presentation. She also designed a towel rack for this decor, which according to a wall label was the last functional piece Woodman ever made, though no one acquired it as a practical piece.

Woodman also made a print fabric titled The window (1982) to serve as a frame in which one of his vessels could be displayed. Today, this piece appears to be perfectly of its moment, a time when serious artists and architects are rediscovering ornamentation and pattern – and spreading them out on every possible surface.

Woodman’s frame is part of some of the motifs in his ceramic work, but not part of his discipline. An untitled ship that she built in 1993 in collaboration with Viola Frey is the work exhibited in The window for this exhibition. It looks great there, but it would probably be even better without the fabric.

Frey (1933-2004) specialized in the creation of large figurative ceramic sculptures, sometimes larger than life. One of those, Male balancing urn (2004), a pompadoured lunk in a blue suit and red tie, is in the show. He is lying in front Artist’s spirit / Studio / World (1992), a wallpaper she created at FWM.

Its design is extremely complex, a mishmash of religion, pop and mystery that, as the title suggests, attempts to incorporate whatever comes to mind, in his studio and in the world. The wallpaper highlights the vivid and streaked colors of the sculpture. But the guy on the floor is what you’ll remember.

Toshiko Takaezu (1922-2011) created beautifully enamelled spherical objects, which she often referred to as Moon balls. At FWM from 1989 to 1991, she produced a series from Belgian printed linen. In the show, these original soft and hard balls are presented together, and in a very effective way. Unlike ceramic pieces, whose surfaces imitate stone, the fabric-covered balls are printed with an entirely different pattern of circles and colors.

Takaezu tried to make the balls covered with linen look like ceramic ones. Some of his experiences and false starts are presented in a small display case. Apparently, she felt that the material for the new moons required a different approach, and she came up with something completely different, and almost as beautiful.

The contemporary artists in the exhibition, perhaps because they had less time to work, make less of the textile component of their works.

I was delighted with the ceramic work of Brooklyn artist Shino Takeda. Through space (2021) is a collection of dozens of small containers, many on shelves, others hanging from the ceiling. There is almost too much to take in, which is why it is so engaging. You could spend the day watching it. But it wasn’t until I got home and looked at some photos that I noticed the textile component of the room, which is basically the background.

Philadelphia artist Jane Irish, also featured in the Art Museum’s current ‘New Grit’ exhibit, uses a piece of printed textile to serve as a canopy above a group of 2021 works, collectively titled Goya’s dream. It consists mainly of eight painted potpourris that vaguely resemble the old sailing ships on which the Spanish colonizers came to America.

On these pieces Irish painted pictures, some inspired by Goya, which allude to colonialism, war and the oppression it brought about, both in the Americas and in Europe. It is a beautiful and stimulating installation, ambiguous but not as obscure as some of the works of Irish.

But like most items on display, you’ll remember the pottery and probably forget the fabric.

Hard / Blanket

Until September 26 at the Fabric Workshop and Museum.

Hours: 12 p.m.-6 p.m. Wed-Fri, 12 p.m.-5 p.m. Sat and Sun, open Tue for members only 12 p.m.-6 p.m.

Admission: Free ($ 5 donation suggested).

Information: 215-561-8888 or fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.


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