We used to think that fine art means oil paintings, cast-bronze sculptures, and maybe a nice charcoal drawing or limited-edition print - but times have changed, and even conservative thinkers recognize that media once reserved for the trades, such as glass and wood, or materials previously unassociated with creativity, such as found objects or Mylar-wrapped candies, are also acceptable as the stuff that museums compete to show and collect.
It's The Thread That Binds, an exhibition of work by newcomers Sierra Furtwangler and Jennifer Hunold at Albany Center Gallery, has paired two fiber artists who play at opposite ends of the art-craft-nostalgia continuum that characterizes the current interaction of postmodern thought with folksy materials. On one hand, we have the 21st-century musings of house-hunter Hunold, who expresses herself humbly in the 17th-century media of embroidery and cross-stitch; on the other hand, there are Furtwangler's oversized stuffed animals, charmingly and naively sewn, but with fangs and breasts and genitals flamboyantly displayed.
Hunold presents two series - colorful thread embroideries of "dream house" floor plans, and cross-stitched aphorisms coded to current moral issues - along with a few related odds and ends. Her obsession with the ideal home is a fairly universal one, but the variations she offers do little to transcend the banality of that American dream. When she lets herself go a bit, whether through fanciful patterns or a slightly edgier concept, Hunold starts to become engaging.
But the cross-stitched pieces, while trying to amuse, are cute at best, and overall really cloying. For example, the one titled Soap + H20 = Nice has no irony or humor - it actually serves specifically to tell us that it's nice to be clean. Another lampoons annoying drivers who honk too loudly when we don't jump off the line at a freshly turned green light. A light tap will do, Hunold sweetly scolds.
These pieces underline the bland sincerity of Hunold's domestic dreaming, which leaves much to be desired. Were she to aim her medium toward subverting our perceptions of embroidered mottoes and samplers by sending stronger messages of our times, Hunold might begin to get somewhere interesting.
Fortunately, Furtwangler has no such timidity. Her sewn and stuffed monsters, mermaids, and monkeys are as fearsome as they are furry and funny. Occupying the space as fully ensconced inhabitants, they both seduce and surprise. One, titled This Is Not A Sloth (Tip of My Rod), jumps out at you from above, a primate that sports a huge, red-tipped pecker and sneers (or smiles?) while hanging upside down from a tree branch (all ingeniously made of printed fabric).
Another monkey figure squats desultorily but menacingly in a corner, shreds of an Oriental rug marking the trail of its retreat. Pieces of carpeting form important parts of other Furtwangler pieces as well, just one example of her capacity to find new ways to use available materials.
The gallery's promotional description of Furtwangler's influences - "the painting of Hieronymous Bosch and Francisco de Goya ... comic books, tattoo culture, 1980s LA punk rock lore, horror movies, Catholic iconography, taxidermy and biological illustration" - says a lot about how fresh and challenging this artist is. She is definitely one to watch.
It's The Thread That Binds continues through April 17; it will be open during Albany's monthly 1st Friday event on April 2. To watch a video of a discussion with the artists, click here.
Courtney Barnett at MASS MoCA
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