Handmade: Women Reshaping Contemporary Art

The Westport Arts Center presented Handmade: Women Reshaping Contemporary Art from March 23 – June 2, 2018.

The exhibition was curated by Elizabeth Gorayeb, Executive Director of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc., a non-profit art historical research foundation based in New York. For nearly two decades, Gorayeb has specialized in art historical research on the provenance and attribution of works of art. As the senior vice president and senior specialist in the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Sotheby’s and as director of research, Gorayeb led provenance research and restitution projects in London, Paris, and New York.

Featured artists included Ghada Amer, Anna Betbeze, Ligia Bouton, Orly Cogan, Lesley Dill, Terri Friedman, Sermin Kardestuncer, Norma Minkowitz, Sophia Narrett, Faith Ringgold, Miriam Schapiro, Judith Scott, Beverly Semmes, Chiyoko Tanaka, Rosemarie Trockel, Margo Wolowiec, and Carolina Yrarrázaval.

As visitors to a gallery or museum, we are expected to engage with works of art though the act of looking. We consider the final product of the artist’s creation, but rarely do we think of the tactile experience of the artist’s process. Fiber art — works of art created from wool, silk, cotton, flax and other forms of textiles — present us with a dynamic, multi-sensory experience. We are invited to look at these objects and admire visual appeal of their material properties. We are also led to consider how these materials must have felt to the artist who created them. We look, but we also are tempted to touch. Whether they are bleached and starkly detailed or saturated with color, abstract or representational, intimate or overwhelming in scale, works of art made with fiber possess a sensory appeal beyond the visual.

The medium of fiber is also weighted with gendered, socio-political signifiers that are imparted onto the final work of art. To put it plainly, fiber is feminine. Weaving, embroidery, knitting and sewing are thought to be the domain of women, whose productions in these areas have long been relegated to the status of “decoration.” Objects described in these terms traditionally do not fall into the rarefied, male-dominated Pantheon of “Fine Art,” which has long been the province of painting, drawing, sculpture and printmaking. But given the shift of values in contemporary culture, does this distinction hold true today?

Fiber art enjoyed a period of avant-garde popularity in the 1970s in the aftermath of the male-dominated Minimalist and Conceptualist movements of the 1960s. The value of “women’s art” and the inherent elitism of its male counterpart were called into question, and what was traditionally dismissed as “decorative” was now offered for consideration as “Fine Art”. This was also a challenge to the idea that “Mechanical art,” or things made for a utilitarian function like quilts and weavings, were unworthy of serious artistic consideration.

Today, many of the objects revered by the art market as “Fine Art:” fall into this utilitarian category. Objects made by an assembly line of studio assistants often serve as vehicles of investment, generating wealth and prestige for their owners and creators. For many of these works, the touch or hands-on manipulation of the artist or the sensory engagement of the viewer is of secondary or minimal consequence. Fiber Art, and the primacy of its sensorial appeal, offers an increasingly rare alternative.

– Elizabeth Gorayeb

Works were courtesy of several prominent private collections, browngrotta arts, Eric Firestone Gallery, Forum Gallery, Susan Inglett Gallery, Nohra Haime Gallery and Pierogi Gallery, NYC.

Read more about fiber art and how “the renewed embrace of fiber might have something to do with our increasingly virtual world” in The New York Times. The March 2018 article features several of the artists in our Handmade exhibition, including Sophia Narrett and Faith Ringgold.

Featured Image: Faith Ringgold, Wedding on the Seine, From the series The French Collection, Part 1: #2, 1991, acrylic on canvas, tie-dyed, pieced fabric border, 74″ x 89″.

Credit Line: Collection of Joseph P. Carroll and Dr. Roberta Carroll, courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York
One of the most important Faith Ringgold story quilts in private hands, “Wedding on the Seine” (1991) tells the story of the fictional artist Willia Marie Simone’s marriage to a Frenchman named Pierre. In the image, Simone appears to be fleeing the ceremony and throwing her bouquet into the Seine River. Simone is running away from Pierre because she believes her elopement with him will interfere with her dream of becoming an artist.

More information here.