It’s customary for museums to tell visitors not to touch the works of art on display. Most of the time, this is pro forma: Nobody but a naughty child is really going to lay hands on an Old Master.
But at the vibrant, varied, surprisingly daring “New Directions in Fiber Art” exhibition, which runs at the Montclair Art Museum through June 16, that warning is warranted, and probably necessary. This is art that wraps itself around the viewer like a blanket: art that is welcoming, tactile, rich with dimensionality, a ball of yarn any curious cat can get tangled in.
No, you can’t pet (or wear) the artworks. But you’re going to want to.
“New Directions in Fiber Art” isn’t a huge exhibit: Fifty works, all from New Jersey, with heavy Essex and Hudson County representation. Nevertheless, concepts are woven thick. The show is a gentle but firm reminder that fiber art can achieve certain specific emotional resonances that its more famous cousins — like painting and photography — cannot match. Cloth, with its skin-like elasticity; thread, with its snappable fragility; yarn, with its homespun frankness; rope, with its industrial applications; cotton and wool, with their visible organic qualities … these are raw materials from which metaphors are easily made.
The 42 artists in the show seem aware that they’re handling explosive stuff — materials that only look modest if you’re not thinking about what they are. They proceed with care and, occasionally, with caution. They make a powerful impression anyway.
Our world contains thousands of fibers and cloths, each with its own expressive possibilities. The Montclair show succeeds in representing that breadth. The works in “New Directions in Fiber Art” do overlap, but less than you might expect. Instead, this forward-looking show testifies to the dizzying variety of techniques, methods and processes in fiber art, and suggests that the most exciting work may be on the horizon. This is fiber art as a playground of the imagination — a subdivision of the art world unbound by convention or canonicity — and one that attracts rulebreakers.
Megan Klim of Jersey City stuffs blooms of gauze into rusty apertures in large white blocks; Katie Truk of Hamilton Square stretches sheets of colored pantyhose and affixes those jagged shapes to a wire frame reminiscent of a human torso; Wonju Seo of Englewood Cliffs fashions Korean silk into a panel that shimmers like a stained-glass window; Susan Martin Maffei of Matawan presents a box of cloth Japanese beetles as smart as buttons on an overcoat.
Other artists in the show explore intersections between fiber art and different mediums. Debora Guzmán Meyer of Montclair embroiders colored cotton directly onto portrait photographs, Kevan Lunney of East Brunswick threads rope through the loops of a curved neon light bulb, Dong Kyu Kim sews receipts into a loosely stitched American flag. Notably, none of these works is a noisy conceptual collision — the juxtapositions aren’t showy, or clever, or self-impressed. Instead, they feel natural: disparate ideas tethered together through the connective power of string.
Because so much of the show speaks in a quiet voice, the two most eye-popping pieces, rewarding though they are, feel like outliers. Jersey City’s Jan Huling has contributed a dress festooned with thousands of red, white and blue beads, and stitched small photographs into its folds. It’s an outfit suitable for a peacock goddess, and would absolutely shut down the ball if anybody were ever to be bold enough to wear it. Amanda Thackray and Diana Palermo of Newark suspend a long zigzag of watercolor and yarn in the air; it falls to the floor in a showy shazam. The piece is inspired by CRISPR gene editing, and it does suggest the interventional expedience of technology and the coiled mystery of nucleotide strands.
Yet the more understated selections make their presence felt, too. Clinton’s Elena Stokes presents a work that is astonishing in its intensity: a quilt, composed of dozens of torn horizontal strips of sari silk arranged in rough parallel. Most are white, beige or faded pastel, but a few red strips slash across the body of the piece like rust stains on a washboard. The result is moody, muted, immersive, reminiscent of both a winter landscape and the wavy brushstrokes of paint on an old barn. It’s rhythmic, assured, and deeply human and lived-in, and I couldn’t stop looking at it.
Peeking out on the opposite wall are two square pieces by Ben Salmon of South Orange. These are made of wool as fluffy as that on the belly of any stuffed animal. His stitched rectangles and connecting lines recall the geometric rigor of Mondrian and the play of Paul Klee. A small but intricate tapestry by Armando Sosa of Hopewell is tucked between some of the larger pieces, but it is so masterfully woven that it is at no risk of getting overshadowed.
Sosa and Salmon are two of the few male artists in a show dominated by women. That’s not unusual or unexpected: compared to painting and sculpture in stone, fiber art has long been considered a distaff pursuit. “New Directions in Fiber Art” wears its feminism lightly, but it’s there, most explicitly in the cheeky “grievance quilt” assembled by Shannon Lindner of West Orange.
By no means is this an apolitical show — the materials may be soft, but the arguments aren’t. In a blunt but effective critique of our negligence, Susan Spencer Reckford of Short Hills grimly straps a Kevlar vest to a mannequin and calls it “Back-to-School.”
Many of the works in the exhibition examine the intersections between synthetic products such as fibers and the environment in the complicated manner that only Jersey artists ever seem to be able to do. Nancy Cohen of Jersey City makes large-scale handmade paper illustrations that appear, at first, to be abstractions, until you step back and realize they’re rough representations of farmland (and surface runoff) seen from above. Maps of New Jersey — cobweb-thin meshes of string, thread and ink — made by Alisha McCurdy Holzman of Fair Lawn are delicately marked to call attention to mines and mills.
Holzman’s mineral and industry maps seem like they could be blown apart by a stiff breeze. Works in fiber often captures that sense of impermanence: this is not art as monument, but art that is susceptible to the elements, art that better mirrors the mutability, and transience, of our own existences.
As if to reinforce this, the Montclair Museum asked community knitters and quilters to “yarn bomb” a tree near the main entrance. So many enthusiasts showed up for the event that most of the trees fronting South Mountain Avenue are now partially sheathed in fiber.
How will these yarn decorations weather the winter? Chances are, by the time the exhibit is over, they’ll be mangled by wind and rain.
But vulnerability is part of the point of this brave, stealth-radical exhibition — and for now, the bombs are a bright and vivid advertisement for a show that is absolutely worth experiencing.
“New Directions in Fiber Art” runs through June 16. For information on the exhibition, and related activities, visit montclairartmuseum.org.