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In Stitches

Artists Explore Fine-Art Themes With Craft Materials

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 6/26/2002

Stitched

Karin Birch, Kristin Caskey, New Image Artists Collective

Maryland Art Place through July 13

There seems to be more and more fiber in the artistic diet these days. For material proof, check out Maryland Art Place, where three exhibits cover the walls and in some cases the floor too. The quilting tradition is represented in an untraditional way by the New Image artists collective, and artists Karin Birch and Kristin Caskey mount witty fiber artworks that will leave you--sorry--in stitches.

What gives? For one thing, there's surely a connection between genre and gender here. Quilting was traditionally a woman's task in American society, and women dominate today's explorations of fiber art too. As women play an increasing role in the art world as creators, curators, and administrators, it's not surprising that what was in the past dismissed as "women's work" now asserts itself in galleries. Along the way, the usual distinctions between art and craft have become increasingly blurred. Fiber is used in a lot of mixed-media installations, and all-fiber artwork has come a long way from grandma's bedspread.

The MAP show gets you in the right frame of mind for such considerations with the "Hive Project," a massive collaboration by the 12 female artists known as New Image. They've linked together 768 distinct quilt squares to make a wall hanging that measures 8 feet high and 98 feet wide. Conceived by group member Patricia Autenrieth, this mega-quilt covers all four walls of one of MAP's galleries.

As you'd expect, its many mostly abstract designs and bright colors make for a very colorful display. Unlike most conventional quilts, which rigorously rely on set patterns, this one has a looser sense of organization. You can follow certain lines and decorative motifs across the piece, but in other sections there are some happily riotous clashes (and a promise of still others to come--the "Hive Project" is billed as a "variable quilt installation," meaning those squares could be rearranged in different ways over the course of the exhibit.)

Installing such a wall-covering grid design in a contemporary art gallery inevitably conjures associations with artists such as Sol LeWitt, whose wall drawings, while generally more methodical in conception, do share an interest in seeing how gridded squares cohere to make a unified picture. Although fiber art doesn't necessarily need the validation of a "high art" comparison with the likes of LeWitt, it helps to be exhibited and discussed as part of the fine-arts mainstream.

Striking as it is, though, this installation doesn't qualify as a visual knockout. The separate quilt squares (the piece looks best viewed from afar), and the multiple installational possibilities at the heart of this project perhaps inevitably translate to an eye-catching jumble of designs--geometric shapes, leaf forms, words, schematic representations of assorted objects, pure streams of color--that lack the power of a single tightly calibrated composition.

Strill, if the busy visual mix doesn't entirely satisfy, it does highlight some thematic--sorry again--threads in common with the work by Karin Birch and Kristin Caskey. All three exhibits use craft-associated materials in genre-busting ways.

Birch's modestly scaled artwork is framed and installed on the gallery wall just as paintings or works on paper would be. From a distance, they even seem a bit painterly. The appearance is not deceptive; Birch's materials include acrylic paint, covering parts of compositions fashioned from hand embroidery and beadwork affixed to a linen backing. The formal appeal in Birch's pieces lies in seeing how her neatly regulated stitching contrasts with the much more spontaneous paint application.

It's also appealing that while her compositions remain abstract, they sometimes evoke landscapes. This topographic quality comes across particularly well in "Three Continents," which also scores with paint application recalling the staining techniques found in Color Field painting of the 1950s. Birch's other pieces don't always make such a vivid impression, but her working method surely will support many more variations in the future.

Kristin Caskey's soft sculptures amount to oversized statements that fiber art needn't remain well-behaved and, in a sense, domesticated. "Documentary Textiles" is a pile of large pillows whose various shapes and clashing colors make for an undisciplined sprawl on the floor and partway up the wall. These truly are throw pillows. Based on 18th-century wallpaper designs, the arcing and hooked soft sculptural forms comprising "Stuffed Wallpaper" appear to have slid mostly off the wall and cover much of the floor.

The misbehaving fiber in "Documentary Textiles" and "Stuffed Wallpaper" pale next to "Drool," in which a cotton pillow, silk blouse, and cardigan sweater are partly covered with beads emulating what a drool-desecrated garment would look like. This artistic fixation is made even more explicit in a six-minute video showing a closeup of lips from which drool (actually saliva-melted colored sugar crystals) continuously drips. Reminiscent of the tomato juice-drooling models favored by photographer Jeanne Dunning, this video is yet another mouth-watering example of Caskey's determination to get your attention with her oversized artistic gestures. Quaint it ain't.

There will be a gallery talk about Stitched June 29 at 2 p.m. Patricia Autenrieth gives a lecture on the exhibit July 13 at 2 p.m. For more information, call (410) 962-8565 or visit www.mdartplace.org.

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