Fiber Sculpture 1960-Present, at the Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) through Aug. 2, includes contributions from 32 artists from four continents. Reassembled painstakingly in three different galleries at the DMAC, it is, with only a couple of exceptions, the same material that first played at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
This is a retrospective that attempts to show how the wall hangings and folk art of Eastern Europe and Latin America influenced post World War II artists like Magdalena Abakanowicz, Lenore Tawney and Sheila Hicks into making conservative art critics and curators take them seriously. Curator Janelle Porter says that such “fiber artists realized that to escape the craft museum ghetto, they needed to go colossal.” They got an assist from the neofuturistic architects of the 1970s and early ’80s. John Portman, for instance, popularized huge buildings, particularly hotels, designed around open, multi-storied atria.
“To soften these buildings, which were mostly steel, glass and mortar, these architects commissioned giant fiber sculptures, which would hang over several stories of bare wall,” Porter explained. Other milestones included the Lausanne Tapestry Biennials 1962-94. “There were not a lot of places where Eastern European artists could go (during the Iron Curtain era) but Switzerland was one of those,” Porter said.
Porter said that the feminist art movement also helped. When critics stopped referring to people as female artists, it became easier for fiber artists to also drop the qualifying adjective. By 1966, fiber art was given a show for the first time in a contemporary art museum, rather than a craft museum, in America. Yet, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited Frontiers in Fiber: The Americans in 1988, the works were described as “wall hangings.” Many of the artists in the current show slipped back into the ghetto as the big sculptures commissioned by architects proved ephemeral, hard to clean and dated. Turner discovered a large percentage of this show in studios, attics and closets. That contrasts drastically with the success of Nick Cave, a more modern artist working in fiber. He recently spoke in Des Moines where he noted that nothing he makes ever returns to his studio — it all sells.
The exhibition in Des Moines is intentionally abstract. That is why there is no Cave piece. It’s also why Abakanowicz is not represented with her stunning piece “Flock,” a part of the DMAC’s permanent collection. Instead, mostly large constructions of fiber are sewn, hung, layered, spread and tossed about the walls and floors of buildings by all three major DMAC architects.
Imaginations shine at Moberg Gallery’s “Four Solos,” through July 3. Richard Kelley of Des Moines, Clare Rosean of Chicago and Andrew Abbott of Maine all brought paintings of subject matter that would have gotten them burned at the stake in the Dark Ages. “My eye doctor recently told me that most people my age have floaters but that mine, at least in my left eye, aren’t dark — they’re golden. In the Middle Ages, that eye would have been gouged out as a sign of possession by the devil,” expounded Kelley. Kelley’s large colorful pastels and oils relate odd relationships between human women and animals, plus some of the horrors of urbanization. Rosean deals with her phobia of travel, particularly air travel, and also delineates her hometown — warts, violence and all. The whole of Abbott’s portraits are the sum of their parts and also many parts that are not parts of the same thing. James Ochs stole the show with some rather disturbing portraits of humans and vegetation. Seven of his paintings sold on opening night.
Tout: Super realist painter Robert Cottingham’s entire Alphabet Series is coming to Steven Vail Fine Arts in Des Moines. It will be included in an upcoming exhibition “A Riff on Vintage Signage by Kirk Blunck at the Hotel Stuart.” CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.