Few art supplies are as closely associated with childhood as felt. Its softness and manipulability make it a favorite of elementary school art teachers. It’s easy to cut, simple to enhance and pleasant to touch. Yet this humblest of textile has a storied past. The history of felt stretches back to antiquity. There is earthy magic to its manufacture: felt is fabric made not by knitting, weaving or stitching threads together, but by matting and pressing fibers until they achieve uncanny cohesion. Because it’s never known the sting of the needle or the tug and tear of the tailor’s craft, a sheet of felt has the integrity and purity of a freshly fallen blanket of snow.
Those qualities — and the innocence they connote — have made felt a favorite among contemporary fiber artists. But for every textile artist busily enhancing the sweetness of felt, there is another subverting it. Special needles allow sculptors in felt to make fuzzy three-dimensional objects with great precision and detail. “Beneath the Surface,” a juried show featuring work from the Northeast Feltmakers Guild at the Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster, is a demonstration of the conceptual and physical variety in contemporary felting. Most of this work is colorful. Some of it is even adorable. But these are not the sort of felt figurines that populate Etsy and other crafting sites. The artists chosen by jurors Wes Sherman and Patricia Spark are going much further out than that.
Some of the most audacious pieces in the show are the flattest. Robin Blakney-Carlton’s “At the Edge” is a forest scene rendered in soft fabric, with the pink petals of flower-bushes and white trunks of birches framing a still lake. It has the melting quality of an Impressionist painting, but it’s much plusher. The velvety texture of the surface of the piece conveys things that paint doesn’t: depth, shadow-saturation, soft, fuzzed-out transitions between shapes and shades, and connotations of deep silence. Josephine Dakers-Brathwaite populates her “Underwater Wonderland” with many species of textile, including lozenges of bright felt, stitched stars, wisps of wool curling out of the frame, and cords of yarn that kick at the middle of the frame like feet in stockings. The piece is astir, but there is something hushed about it, too. Its kinetic reverberations are muffled by the locks and threads.
Carol Ingram’s “Surfacing” is a different kind of sea scene — black and white, with squiggles and swirls on the surface of the felt that suggest a submerged figure, and a thin gold bar on the horizon. The artist presents it as a single vertical panel, sans frame, falling from the wall like a slide.
Yet the show-stealers at “Beneath The Surface,” which will be on view at CCA until Dec. 9, are the sculptures in fiber. These amalgams of matted thread sit on pedestals in the middle of the central gallery, making nice with each other like animals in a menagerie. Nevertheless, these topiaries in wool and cotton are territorial: They’ve got heft and specific gravity and, in some cases, quite a lot of attitude.
Rachel Montroy, fabricator of flowers as long as your forearm, is the grabbiest. Her woolen rendition of a great horn-like plant, complete with hooked yellow tendrils and petals like the ends of a giant’s Q-tip, may have sprung from the impassive seedpod of pink slits and bunched sweater sleeves hanging on the wall. Colleen Ballew gives us a curious bird face with a conical, mustard yellow beak, pushing out from the center of a clutch of felted eggs. Linda Tomkow’s cobalt-blue octopus coils its tentacles around a felt jug and worries the lid open with its suckers; Sibel Adali’s irate felt faces hang from pendants; Barbara J. Ryan lets her crawly felt bugaboos hatch from eggs tucked into the concentric Skee-Ball rings of fabric.
All of this is just short of huggable, and exactly as adorable as it needs to be to wiggle its way into your consciousness.
Even the abstract pieces in this show lean toward the organic. Susan Getchell’s “Deep Within” may be nothing more than a cylinder of fabric, yet the beads, decorative squiggles and sharp tongues of red fabric make it feel like something that has grown on that white pedestal like a textile barnacle. Joy Muller-McCoola lets blue netting and washes of wool flow between great gray mounds of fiber, then she stands it up on one end and entangles plastic nets and trash in the folds of the piece to fully simulate the swirling, contaminating eddies of an urban river. Marsha Biderman lets loosely slung sheets of felt mimic the downward reach of fungal mycelia.
Most imaginatively of all, Charlotte Moore brings us her cloth-bound version of “Archaeology”: sheet after sheet of felt, layered like strata, tucked in a brown fabric casing with one corner bitten away to expose the streaks of color.
These works maintain an illusion common to the pieces in this show. In the hands of a master, felt can look like it’s alive and growing. Not in a way you can actively see, of course, but then you can’t see the growth of trees, either.
Felt is moss on stone, lichen on a jetty, mushrooms under an oak, buds slowly emerging from a twig after the kiss of spring. It hums with an undercurrent of life.
For kids’ stuff, it can be awfully serious.
“Beneath the Surface” will be at the Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster through Dec. 9. Visit ccabedminster.org.
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