Woven together

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

The eyes of fallen Canadian soldiers appear to watch John Mahoney as he looks over Vita Plume’s work honoring her countrymen who died in Afghanistan. Plume’s array hangs in a corner at the Durango Arts Center for the “Textiles Today” show, which features fabric art from around the country.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

Approximating Pi, a quilt by Sandy Sellers, bursts with numbers, buttons and tiny watch faces. A large circle inside square format barely contains her obsession with counting. The piece is gorgeous and relentless. It reflects a current tendency in art quilts – compulsive decoration.

“Pi” may be the only more-or-less conventional work in the Durango Arts Center’s inventive exploration into modern textile art. Guest Curator and well-known fiber artist Ilze Aviks has invited 20 professional colleagues from all over the country to participate. Some introduce new concepts; others innovate technically. The result is eye opening.

Almost all types of this ancient art form are on display, from weaving to simple stitching. But the field has been extended by digital printing and computerized looms. Thematically, the artists range from simple delight in process to intense political outrage.

Vita Plume’s installation of 56 weavings from an ongoing project, “Fallen Canadian Soldiers,” is a dramatic example. Plume continues a long textile tradition of ritualized commemoration, from burial cloths to remembrance embroidery. She began her project in 2002 and continues to memorialize soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. It’s a form of a posthumous portraiture, and Plume focuses only on the eyes plus initials as identifiers. In addition, Plume includes a key with more information: full name, birthplace and death date. Exhibited in a compelling grid, Plume’s wall of faces is a new kind of war monument. It isn’t bronze or granite. The pliable texture of woven material and the soft brown coloration transforms this memorial into something warmer, more domestic, touchable and touching.

The smallest work in the show is by the late Ed Lambert, professor emeritus of the University of Georgia. Lambert died last June when Aviks and her large committee began conceptualizing the exhibit. Fortunately, Lambert’s widow, Donna, sent a piece to be included. Appropriately, “Untitled” is hung on the title wall.

A mixed medium work of simple stitchery, the piece features two rows of tiny trees, layered in front of a mirror. The result is an illusion of a forest. Instead of a date of creation, Lambert’s widow submitted his birth and death dates – for a lifespan dedicated to art. Lambert graduated from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1974 and inspired students for decades while creating an impressive body of progressive fiber art on his own.

Colorado fiber artist Carol Shinn shows two stunning landscapes. They appear to be quite conventional until you realize she works in freestyle machine embroidery. “Piñon at Sunset” and “Farm Road” are nothing but luminous, and nowhere do you see the base fabric peaking through. Dense and tight, these delicate images take landscape imagery into a new realm.

Shinn’s work is also on display at the Denver Art Museum in “Sleight of Hand,” a new exhibition of 14 contemporary fiber artists. Similar to the DAC show in forward-looking technology and inspiration, it will be up through November. “Sleight of Hand” is well worth the trip, especially if you add two other temporary DAM exhibitions, a retrospective of fashion design by Yves Saint Laurent and “Read My Pins,” a terrific show of Madeleine Albright’s jewelry diplomacy.

Beside’s Shinn’s realistic rendering of “Chimney Rock,” you’ll see a haunting standing figure made out of resin, sand and burlap by Magdalena Abakanowicz and “Nierika,” one of Rebecca Medel’s astonishing knotted net constructions.

Laboriously, as so many fiber artists, Medel creates huge geometrical constructions out of thousands of tiny strokes, small knots. The result is a massive form that’s somehow elusive. “Nierika” is derived from the Huichol people of Mexico and concerns the cosmic passage between life and death. Five suspended white and gray panels with implied windows and spirals float in the air and barely seem to exist. You have to see it to experience the ephemeral beauty.

In her own abstract pieces, Aviks also can work such magic. “Textiles Today” would be stronger if one of her elegant explorations of form or the idea of perfection were in it.

Alas, Aviks is the curator, and self inclusion is simply not done. Besides, Aviks has been invited by our State Department to appear as an honored guest and exhibitor at the U.S. Embassy in Riga, Latvia, for the opening of a new exhibition of Latvian-Americans. While there, Aviks will visit a cousin, her parents’ old farm and be a guest speaker in Latvian schools.

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at jreynolds@durangoherald.com.

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