Can something you’d like to wear, walk on, or potentially use as an oven-mitt be art? Is art made with fibers less fine than art made with paint, digital film, or the flailing of human limbs? Maybe the answer lies in your first impression of the work; the niche in your consciousness into which the work slides on its own. Material Spaces: Veneration through the Needle’s Eye, on display at Wayne State University’s Elaine Jacob Gallery, slides quickly into its very own singular, mysterious category that, despite the humbleness of its materials (all the pieces in the show are made with thread) contains more than a whiff of what Kant called the Sublime. A sublime thing is one that calls our attention to the inconceivable vastness of the universe; it both awakens us to forces larger than ourselves and humbles us- frightens us. Material Spaces leaves you feeling the presence of a quietly sublime force. This is accomplished with thread, and the bizarre curatorial magic that seems to happen in every show I’ve seen at Elaine Jacob.
Material Spaces features the work of three fiber artists; Tom Lundberg’s luminous embroideries, Beili Liu’s organic thread sculpture, and Carolyn Kallenborn’s yarn installation, epic in both concept and scale. Pulsating with color contrasts and layered up with millions of impossibly precise stitches, Lundberg’s embroideries resemble puffy, oddly shaped little paintings stuck into neat black frames. These little wonders don’t get tired; the more you look, the more there is to see, and Lundberg makes use of many different image-making techniques in his work, from abstract geometric motifs and decorative patterns to competent landscapes and representational forms which, in their tiny scale and reverence of execution could pass for pre-Renaissance religious icons. The embroideries come in a bunch of different shapes that follow the theme of the given piece in a simple but not at all hokey way. Orion Diving, one of the works that stood out to me the most, was shaped like the sole of a shoe (as are many of Lundberg’s works) and depicted a starry night sky above an otherworldly body of water that could have been dreamed by Van Gogh. A star from Orion’s belt, bright and massive, dips close to the water. Feet and sky seem to be two of Lundberg’s favorite subjects, and in Orion Diving they combine simply and powerfully, evoking journey, infinity and the ever-present footprint of man; the hushed, acute experience of stepping into the Sublime.
A world apart from Lundberg’s relatively traditional picture-making, and yet employing the same material is Carolyn Kallenborn’s installation Ausencia. It is, like Beili Liu’s sculpture, composed of thousands of strands of fiber, groaning and straining against the pull of gravity. The lengths of yarn in Kallenborn’s installation extend vertically from ceiling to floor, the end of each weighted with a small stone. Some stones dangle in space, some rest on the floor. While walking through, the stones take on the appearance of stars arranged in a very precise, if homey, mockup of a galaxy. Back up a few feet, and the gradations of color in the yarn pieces gel into a soft, misty twilight landscape. Kallenborn’s intent with this piece is to draw attention to the many young Mexicans who undertake that walk through the valley of the shadow every year, illegally entering this country to find work, and the painful separation from their families that’s part of it. There’s some audio content piped into the gallery, portions of Kallenborn’s interviews with citizens of a town in Oaxaca who have lost loved ones to jobs in the states. I thought the audio unnecessary. The installation speaks poignantly enough. Every pebble is a lost soul- every yarn a family straining to hold on against economic forces as mighty as the cosmos. Beili Liu’s installation is similar in form, and consists of red threads suspended between two points on the ceiling. There’s no information posted about it, and despite its glaring red color it speaks quietly, in curves and ellipses. It makes effective use of shadow, casting a soft, shimmering double of itself onto the walls and floor. It resembles an insubstantial hammock, creating an unsettling balance between rest and strain, hanging on and surrendering to elemental forces.
In a way, Material Spaces trumped the craftiness of its chosen materials through sheer artistry on the one hand (sort of awkwardly re-enforced by the rectangular, glassed over frames Lundberg’s works were jammed into; the embroideries are so tactile, they invite the fingers to touch, which I know you mustn’t do, but still) and sheer scale on the other. It’s funny, what huge concepts you can bring to life with so puny and ephemeral a material as thread.
- Clara DeGalan
Material Spaces: Veneration through the Needle’s Eye is on display until May 20.