If you were forced to pick a fight with a visual artist, you’d be well advised to steer clear of embroiderers. Of the many ways to make a straight line on a blank surface, thread may be the most physical. Punching a needle through canvas or paper or cloth requires strong hand muscles. Pulling the thread tight demands a flexible wrist. Doing it hundreds of times demonstrates tenacity and determination — and, perhaps, a waspish will to puncture something.
Yet a thread never lets you forget its mutability. Catch it on a button and it will snag; pull it too tight, and it may fray. Bunch threads together and they achieve a plush, fluffy, squeezable texture that engenders protective feelings. Let one stand on its own and it may look like a wisp. Compared to paintings, or statues, or textile pieces made of thicker fibers, art made of thread is fragile. It’s hard work to create something so soft.
“Thread Hijack” embraces these contradictions with so much ardor that a visitor would be forgiven for blushing. This show, which will be on view at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton until Jan. 8, is a passionate love letter to colored string and a playful, needle-sharp investigation of its creative possibilities.
The six artists in the show are experimenting with thread, but the pieces don’t feel clinical in the slightest. Instead, this show is as warm and comfortable as a winter scarf — a weird one, mind you, with a mesmerizing pattern. Mary Birmingham’s curation doesn’t feel daring, even though it is. It’s also quietly defiant. Even within the still-marginalized field of fiber art, embroidery is infrequently celebrated. The smart, subtly muscular “Thread Hijack” could help change that.
Some of the pieces in the show seem explicitly designed to prove how nicely thread and paint can play together. The bottom half of “Earth/Ground/Terrain” by the Assam-born artist Natasha Das consists of thick, squarish brushstrokes of turbulent oil paint. The top half contains stitched rectangles in bold colors, many with the upper right corner knocked out, like scores of interlocking Utahs, each approximately the size of the patches of pigment on the bottom.
The two parts of the piece feel like reflections, each commenting on the peculiar qualities of its neighboring medium. Das, who harmonizes Indian needle-and-thread tradition and blunt American abstract expressionism, proves that thread can crackle with the same chaos that oil paint can. Because colors in the top half of the piece recur in the bottom, it looks as if the thread is unraveling and maybe even liquefying. Or is it the paint that is achieving the quality of worn fabric, supple and faded, machine-washed and stretchy as lived-in cotton?
“Pink” takes the dialogue further: here, she has stitched overlapping shapes directly onto a painted background. The patches of thread are gorgeous extrusions — bright dabs of pigment that mimic the look of freshly applied paint. They even appear to run together.
Other artists in the show negotiate a different kind of settlement between fiber and paint. Holly Miller tickles the surface of her pieces in acrylic with wan threads that hang like guitar strings. In “Punch,” a protuberance in blue paint is echoed by a whisper of thread that traces its outline. This is string as supplement — an instant warm-up, a homespun enhancement of what otherwise would otherwise have been a chilly play of color fields. It also generates a strange trick of the eye: its clever placement somehow imparts the blurry quality of a picture on an old CRT television set.
Raymond Saá’s delightful series of untitled works are arrays of gouache-painted patches, loosely overlapping, affixed to a paper background. He’s ringed the edges of his pleasant-colored shingle-like shapes with thread, giving them the look of jeans pockets. Many textural artworks tempt viewers to touch them; here are some you might want to hide something in.
The most revelatory works in “Thread Hijack,” though, are the ones in which the string is the star. Iranian artist Abdolreza Aminlari pulls his thread so tight that it barely seems to rise above the paper surface of his pieces. He’s also meticulous about his measurements: he’s arranged his stitched lines so they form perfect squares and set the squares to intersect at precise angles, hypnotic in their consistency. It’s a geometry teacher’s gilded dream. What really makes Aminlari’s thread shimmer and sing is the stuff it’s made of — Japanese-milled 24 carat gold. Set against blue backgrounds, Aminlari’s arrangement of metallic shapes feels like a blown-up schematic for the world’s most luxurious computer chip.
Jesse Henson’s winsome work on handmade paper looks every bit as opulent. She, too, uses gold-colored thread; hers, however, is synthetic, made from polyester and rayon. This allows her to pour it on, bunching up the colored stitches (she sews in Valentine red, shamrock green and other hues) until the heft of the thread bends the backdrop. Henson safeguards against the vulnerability of thread by allowing each fiber to thicken and reinforce the next. She has framed six of her meditations and placed them side by side on one gallery wall; they’re beautifully balanced and surprisingly sturdy-looking considering the humble materials they’re made of.
“Thread Hijack” fills the museum’s second-floor special exhibition gallery. But there is a side room on the floor and it contains a minor marvel not unrelated to “Thread Hijack”: Amie Adelman’s “Moving Lines,” a twisting rainbow bridge of an installation that connects one corner of the space to another with taut strings. It’s an exercise in tension, a hammock for the faeries, and it hangs in contrast with “Canopy (Breuer Incarnation),” an enveloping “Thread Hijack” piece from the Jersey City artist Caroline Burton. Her loosely woven stack of dark rectangles, with larger ones teetering atop smaller ones, evokes (among other things) the exterior of the Breuer Building, the New York City landmark that has been home to several museums.
Playfully, she’s serving notice to the establishment. Artists working with thread may not be the most famous, or the most institutional, or the loudest voices in the gallery. But they’re well worth tangling with.
“Thread Hijack” runs at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton through Jan. 8. Visit hunterdonartmuseum.org.
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