by Elena Mencarelli,
“Clay and Textile” show, exhibited at the WAH center between September and October 2022, inaugurates the new curatorial vision of the Center’s Art Director Yuko Nii: giving major relevance to works whose materials establish a connection between craftsmanship, Visual Art, and Nature. This vision responds to the current climate crises, examining men’s relationship with Nature, as believed to have been caused mainly by human misbehaviors to treat the Mother Nature, and looking at the different coping possibilities towards the historical and health issues (Covid pandemic, endemic animal infestations damaging the environment, and the global geo-political landscape of separatism followed by internal wars and atomic threats are some of the symptoms of the crises).
“Clay and Textile” manifests the desire for reconciliation with Nature through the contribution of 28 artists whom worked with the natural elements of clay and fiber expressed in both, the superb traditional textile art among the well trained elder generation craftsmen in contrast with the works by younger generation works done in more abstract free spirited expressions, phenomenologically, the overall abstract look of the exhibition suggests the different layers of meanings of the show, while on the ontological level the use of the natural elements stimulates the conversation around the artist’s role within the transformation process of the materials.
During his 1953 seminar “The Question Concerning Technology” Frederick Heidegger introduced to the world the dual vision of Nature as Gegenstand and Bestellen (“self-sufficient object” and “fund to be exploited”)1. The seminar ignited a world-wide philosophical dialogue around the concepts of “modern technique” and “production”, the human intervention onto Nature, and the polar value of craftsmanship as poises and techne —terms of Aristotelian origins.
A brief recall to Heidegger is here due in order for us to understand the depth of the fiber and clay artists’ research when approaching these natural elements. Philosophically, the manipulation of the materials can be seen as a “creative gesture” (poiesis) and “expression of artistic knowledge” (techné) at the same time.2 Also, for Aristotele as well as for Heidegger, the ultimate aim of the poiesis/techné activity is “to unveil the truth”, named as aletheia (“disclosure”) in the philosophers texts —disclosure of something that was not existing before, or that was hidden to our eyes, via the creative gesture.
This unveiling procedure is expressed by a ceramist, John Domenico “Always on My Mind” and a textile artist, Megali T. Wilensky’s pieces “Luminecence” and “Interconnections”. With its globular structure Domenico unveils his inner shape; it is his own truth standing behind layers of matter, but formally he unveils one of the possibilities of existence of the warm and plastic clay element. Domenico’s clay sculptures are abstract and figurative at the same time, because they give the un-formed shapes introspective meanings and references to the personal reality of the artist. Similarly, Alan Chin’s works recall anthropomorphic figures without being attached to the realistic language, such as “Midnight Veggie” and “Post Production”, represent objects shaped onto the border line between the Natural and the Animal world, visually inspired from trees, corals, and humans they manifest the symbiotic encounter of Chin’s artistic research with the earthy element. Judith Eloise Hooper also manifests an introspective approach towards the material:
“My work in clay began in 1982 designing for the tabletop industry, and about 10 years later, when an illness challenged me, I knew I had to go deeper into myself so as not to die in an artistic compromise. Then I began this series of stoneware, such as “Pauline’s Field” and “Reversal of Fortune” with the hope they would emotionally connect you to the land and feel a responsibility for its preservation and to care for it as it cares for you”.
The issue of the man’s role within the transformation process of the matter actualized by the use of technology is one of the main topic of “The Questions Concerning Technology”: Heidegger describes “modern technique” as a medium of exploitation of the Earth that transforms Nature from a “self-sufficient entity” (Gegenstand) to a “fund to be exploited” (Bestand). This transformation is the consequence of the technique applied as an act of functional production. Within this very process of functional transformation the man itself is objectified —he simply becomes one of the many functional elements of the production chain that exploits Nature.
These philosophical considerations can be applied to the man’s position within the current historical and climate crises. What is the man in front of the crises, a victim or the executioner? What is the artist in front of the natural material, the creator or a mean for transformation and production?
Megali T. Wilensky’s fiber pieces “Simple Core”, “Luminescence”, and “Organism 222” represent the conflict internal to the experience of matter processing. The pieces look like organs or cellular organisms; their intriguing texture make us wonder if it is the artist to having shaped the matter, or if it is the matter to have manifested its truth for the artist to extrapolate.
“My art reveals the mysteries of life by peering into the unseen layers of nature. The rolls and folds of fabric show us hidden cross sections of atoms, cells, organs, and organisms. I want to expose the mystery and the majesty of millions of years of evolution, which started as the simplest life forms, becoming more complex over time with specialized organs, and finally culminating in our conscious mind. Representing this process as a vibrantly colored visual and sculptural art, from simple to complex, and from infinitesimal to infinite, is the foundation of my work”, explains Wilensky. Therefore the exposition of the mystery of life and of evolution that the artist aims towards correspond to the process of “unveiling the truth” mentioned by Aristotele and Heidegger.
“My process is two fold: inward meditation and outward projection. As I roll the fabric, I meditate while feeling the fabric between my fingers, the sensation of the scissors as they cut, and the glue on my hands. I respond to my material’s textures, bold colors, and how they are translated through my emotions. As I delve within my self awareness and manual creation, I see life forms emerge: cells, plants, and organs. The lines, shapes and colors of the fabric guide me into forming not just artworks, but organisms that connect with each other; they are alive, they are within us and surround us. As such, my art is a lens to look within, to connect with our deepest most interior. By peering into my own layers, and examining my own cross sections, I am able to transmute a personal meditative process into a fabric diagram of how to peel back the layers of reality and see that we are all cut from the same cloth” —Megali Tamara Wilensky.
Textile work has ancient origins; born around 500.000 years ago it evolved from being mainly a practical activity to an art form, and through times becoming a tool for gender discrimination. For example, the Bauhaus female students were addressed towards textile art because Gropius would believe that their physical and cognitive nature was more suitable to textile over painting (though Anni Albers was able to elevate this sociological limit to a great stimuli for experimentations, making the textile craft a real art form with a new visual vocabulary and new meanings: “Most of our lives we live closed up in ourselves, with a longing not to be alone, to include others in that life that is invisible and intangible. To make it visible and tangible, we need light and material, any material. And any material can take on the burden of what had been brewing in our consciousness or subconsciousness, in our awareness or in our dreams”3).
In “Jute pieces” Howard Ptaszek realizes the intangible truth mentioned by A. Albers manipulating the raw material with a very simple gesture: “craft of hand weaving by floor loom”. Ptaszek uses the same unique material intertwined in different patterns: one simple and rough element displayed in its multiple possibilities of existence, and the many possibilities of existence that relate to the same one element. !Jute pieces” reminds us of the simplicity of being that underlies complex patterns.
Tamara Trupin and Hisami Sakamoto rely onto the qualities of fabric to create unique art pieces in which light, texture and color are the primary subjects.
“For me, the act of hand stitching beads is a must. Beads are a thrilling material for both their versatility of use and for their rich interplay with light. My work often involves hand-embroidering beads onto a silk backing sewn to an armature, incorporating layers of beads in order to create rich light effects through different glass finishes, as well as to add form and relief. I often use recycled textiles, as well as handspun and hand-dyed yarns. Much of my imagery derives from personal and historical sources as well as from the diverse textile and costume traditions of cultures around the world. Textiles are one of the most universal and primal pursuits of humanity; working with them provides a deep sense of connectedness and wellbeing that no other medium can match”. — Tamara Turpin
In the show there are also some pieces standing out for the technical qualities that pay homage to the traditional textile craft, amongst these are “Swift” and “Drift” by Mary Lane and the several superb intricate pieces in the Women Sport Series (all done in woven tapestry & crochet technique) by Susan Maffei including the biggest and the most impressive piece, “Golf at Chelsea Piers”. And “Return” and “Moving Mountain” by Hillary Steel, and “Sunday on the couch” by Mary Tooley Parker, combines the ancient craft with a modern abstract visual vocabulary. In “Sunday on the couch” by Mary Tooley Parker represents an image of intimacy and personal memories via a highly skilled pictorial language obtained through the Hooked Tapestry technique. In “Moving Mountain” Steel takes up the image of the tapestry and illuminates it with suns and moons that rise and set on the abstract landscape, demonstrating a precise knowledge of the technique of Shibori The older generation of textile artists, Mary Lane, Susan Maffei, and Ellen Ramsey hold a special place of recognition within the show, having remained loyal to the inner qualities of the media during the years and having been able to produce high quality artworks.
On the other hand, the philosophical questions aroused by the meeting between Art expression and the natural media at the core of “Clay and Textile” exhibition support the ecosophycal approach of the curator4 —an approach that goes beyond the tangible issues concerning the exploitation of Earth and the consequential climate crises, and that touches topics such as social relationships, the meaning of life within the fluid context of existence, the complex link between materiality and spirituality, and the role of the artist in the definition of what is reality.
1 The Question Concerning Technology (German: Die Frage nach der Technik) Martin Heidegger, Vorträge und Aufsätze, 1954. The seminar took place in Munich, Germany.
2 Both terms refer to the concept of Art and come from the ancient greek. As explained by Plato (Repubblica, I, 380-370 b.c., in “Platone, Tutti gli scritti”, G. Reale, Milano, Bompiani 2000) techne means Art as ability to look after what is useful and right. Therefore, the term refers to the responsibility that comes with the creative gesture of art. The modern translation of the term as “technique” is evidently limited compared to its philosophical original meaning, since the latter only refers to the ability of executing a process, and not to the deontological final responsibility. Poiesis means “creation”, the ability to realize something out of nothing. This is the ability possessed by artists and poets (modern translation of poiesis is poetry).
3 Anni Albers 1982, Material as Metaphor
4 “The concept of ecology is complex, it implies various realities and art consists in a kind of science, the science of the natural ecosystems…Ecology became a topic of discussion amongst different social groups, like the conservatives whom look after a “return to the origins”…Instead, I look at the conceptual connections amongst all these different dimensions. This is how it was born the idea of Ecosphy that includes 3 kind of ecologies: the environmental, the social and the mental ones”. Felix Guattari, http://www.euronomade.info/?p=12982, 2020