I recently had the opportunity to see an exhibit at the new home of the Fabric Workshop and Museum . It’s a roomy, comfortable space that takes up several buildings on Arch Street in Philadelphia. You no longer have to climb flights of stairs to get to the exhibits and it’s conveniently located on across the street from the Philadelphia Convention Center.
The current exhibit, New American Voices II showcases the work of four invitational artists-in-residence: Bill Smith, Jiha Moon, Robert Pruitt and Jim Drain. New American Voices II was definitely not the visual version of a string quartet; it was the work of four soloists, each of whom chose different media and themes to express a unique point of view. The FMW tries to showcase artists from across the United States with varied backgrounds and perspectives and encourages them to work with materials they might not have used before. From what I saw the FMW accomplished its mission and it looks like the artists enjoyed the process. The exhibition had so much to offer that I can only hit the highlights in this post. To get the full flavor, you must see it for yourself.
South Korean-born Jiha Moon’s mixed media wall pieces combine collage, sewing, painting, and screen printing with an Asian color aesthetic. She makes plentiful use of Asian and American popular culture symbols and much of her work reminds me of traditional Asian embroidery, not because of any needlework she might usem, but because the designs are expansive and flowing. Much of her work consists of fanciful pieces that incorporate images from folklore and advertising , but she showed her serious side in a work that appeared to explore the tensions between North and South Korea. The piece below, which is a little different from the others, features pin cushions, ribbons and beads.
Jim Drain’s huge (and I mean XXXXXL) colorful machine-knitted dolmen sleeve sweaters remind me of the big suit David Byrne wears in Stop Making Sense, and fantastic Noh costumes. I suppose they could be worn, but they were displayed on stands that let the viewer examine every nuance of the designs. A two-dimensional picture cannot convey the surprises that jump out as you circle the sweaters. The colors shift and there are lots of subtle details and embellishments. At first, the color choices appear to be mostly random but on further examination, you realize that every skein and thread works with everything else in the sweater. Nothing is there that doesn’t belong.
What fascinated me most about Robert Pruitt’s work was his use of period cameras to photograph members of a fictional African-American family to depict ancestors from years past like you’d see in a family album. Now that’s attention to detail and real dedication. For me the most powerful photograph was one of a young woman wearing a grass skirt and what appears to be a European colonial officer’s dress uniform jacket. The golden shoulder cord is replaced by rope that appeared to be a noose. Pruitt also uses traditional African symbols and imagery pulled from contemporary urban America. I found his work disturbing and compelling.
Bill Smith’s mechanical sculptures meld engineering and art in a way that any fan of Jules Verne or Nicola Tesla would admire, but his inclusion of organic objects like Emu eggs and feathers along with organic looking plastic forms that resemble jellyfish or brain synapses takes his work out of the realm of Steampunk into another world that seems really strange (or is it strangely real?) Along with Emu eggs, he takes water, magnets, quirky copper wire, electronics and computers to fashion several interactive contraptions that manage to look organic, old-fashioned and futuristic all at once. When walked up to one sculpture, the Emu egg started to spin, the wires started to sway and the room filled with a low humming sound. Then projectors started flashing images onto the white walls of the gallery. Amazing. Here’s a video of a similar device he designed and built.
New American Voices II runs until the Spring. Admission is only $3.00 but you can donate more if you like. Treat yourself to this exhibit and the ones planned for the future. We are so lucky to have a venue like the FMW in Philadelphia. Let’s support it.