“My body became a wick,” reads the verse, “and only a blanket could cool me.”
The artist Elana Herzog thinks enough of this verse — and the Brenda Coultas poem it is from — to print it three times. She has laid the pages side by side in a display case, painted the paper and set this reliquary against a back wall in the main gallery of The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit. It is the only text you will encounter at “Ripped, Tangled, and Frayed,” a spectacular sampler of her post-apocalyptic adventures at the knotty fringe of textile art, and it is a key to the artist’s obsessions and motivations, and maybe a kind of prayer, too. Only a blanket can snuff the flame that consumes her, but what if the blanket is no longer up to the job?
There are indeed blankets in this dramatic show, plus torn rugs, ripped bedsheets, bunched-up drapes with time-weary tassels, and strips of vibrant carpet bunched in a great charismatic heap on a palette that looks as if it has seen some serious dragging around the loading dock. All of these fabrics have been artfully mangled, sometimes to the very brink of recognition, by Herzog, whose approach to her material is both merciless and muscular. Like a mid-century abstract painter, Herzog likes to work big, occupying whole walls and corners with massive pieces that make an immediate and discomfiting impression. One behemoth of found fabric and wooden planks hangs from the ceiling in a rainstorm of red thread.
“Ripped, Tangled, and Frayed,” which will be on view through Feb. 4, makes the case that unraveling can be just as expressive as meticulous stitching.
Though textiles of all kinds get the Herzog treatment, she returns often to chenille, the once-popular tufted cotton fabric that you probably cozied up to as a child. Chenille bedspreads were attainable luxury items in the first half of the twentieth century: They were both decorative and functional, and there is a good chance your grandmother wrapped you up in one if you ever spent the night at her place. A chenille cover represents homeyness, family and — since they were often treated as heirlooms — continuity across generations. Chenille also frays, marvelously, into orphaned and split threads, curved question marks of yarn, discolored pile and threadbare patches.
Herzog isn’t the first to look at aged chenille and see a metaphor about the fraying of the ties that bind, the straining of family connections, and the yawning holes in our memories. Few have taken it quite as far as she has, though.
In “Untitled #1,” one of two centerpieces of a consistently provocative show, Herzog affixes the remnants of a chenille bedspread to a blank white wall with a slight kink in it. The piece contains more absence than presence: Half of the sheet is gone. What’s left is some of the decorative pile, fraying and worn but still clinging to its shape.
To keep these exhausted threads together, Herzog has resorted to an extreme measure: She has held them in place with metal sutures from an industrial staple gun. So many staples have been driven into the bedspread and the plywood behind it that they have become part of the stitching. And there it hangs: an amalgam of steel and cotton, retaining the visual impression of an ornate and antique bed sheet, but about as cuddly as a porcupine.
That same approach — one that could literally be called riveting — continues on the other side of the same panel. There, in another nameless piece, Herzog has turned her staple gun on the remains of a woolen carpet. Though most of the original stitches have gone missing, she has preserved the outline and much of its design. She has had to invest thousands of staples of various colors and sizes to do it, but it is indisputably a carpet, even if it requires some imagination to fill in the blank spaces. What fabric is left has been chewed up by the years. Tiny scraps of stitching turn into a froth of decayed thread at the edges. Solitary strands droop against the white wall. In some places, Herzog has taken her frustration directly to the plywood, dotting it with tiny, savage holes that might have come from a berserk sewing machine. “Untitled” is a desperate commentary on the labor required to counteract the fearsome effects of entropy, and a sly statement about the vanity of decoration, too.
If the rest of the show isn’t as beautifully disheveled as this, it is still an articulate and coherent expression of fragility, incompleteness, cold comfort and the dynamics of things coming apart.
“Big Little Haiti,” a recent work (the “Untitled” pieces are close to two decades old), is a rough-stitched amalgam of strips of thread in the shape of a queasy square. It is winsome, even as it appears to be unraveling at the edges, with loose threads sticking out all over its surface like the wires of a sparking, short-circuiting motherboard.
A towering, off-white sculpture in chenille, also called “Untitled,” combines fabric in thick, hanging bunches with dangling strands of artificial pearls. It looks a little like a beat-up shower curtain surrounding a circular bath and a bit like a textile crucifix waiting for a cloth Jesus.
Then there is “Felled, 2015-2023,” the installation that “Ripped, Tangled, and Frayed” will probably be most remembered for. Herzog has bandaged the joints of logs with cut-up strips of carpet and stretched them across the floor. The piece extends on the far side of the gallery’s plate glass window, where more broken branches reach across the lawn, pointing toward the parking lot. Here is emotional kindling too big for the room to contain — a wick too big for blankets to cool.
Yet protective gestures, even when inadequate, are meaningful. Herzog’s frayed sheets, rugs and bedcovers can’t do what they used to do, but they remain what they always were. They have held onto their form, somehow, even if they have had to be stitched together by rude metal means. They don’t have what it takes to put out the fire, or even to swaddle a child on a chilly night. But they dare you to remember that they once did.
Frayed and tangled we might be. But no matter what has been taken away from us, our acts of care are still visible, and still resonate.
“Elana Herzog: Ripped, Tangled, and Frayed” will be at The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit through Feb. 4. Visit artcenternj.org.
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