Theater & Arts

10 things that wow in new Fresno Art Museum fiber arts show

Lia Cook’s “Traces Past” is part of Fresno Art Museum’s show “Fiber Art Masterworks.”
Lia Cook’s “Traces Past” is part of Fresno Art Museum’s show “Fiber Art Masterworks.” jwalker@fresnobee.com

Have you ever wanted to touch a work of art in a museum? C’mon, ’fess up. Especially those big, crusty works in oil with the paint piled on. What would it be like to reach out, move your finger forward just a few more inches … and touch?

I’d never do that, of course, not the least reason being that I’d get booted from the members-only preview receptions in the Art Criticism Version of the Afterlife. (I think ahead.)

Seriously, though, when I walked through the thrilling new “Fiber Art Master Works” exhibition at the Fresno Art Museum, I never wanted to touch a work of art more.

You can’t, of course. Absolutely not. But these works are so inviting that you’ll have to resist the temptation. Some are big and spectacular. Others are small and intimate. They range from plush and comfy to delicate and silky smooth. Featuring varieties of tapestry, embroidery, weaving, crochet, quilting, and appliqué, the 23 works – all examples of innovation and experimentation in fiber techniques – are off-limits to human hands. But you can touch with your eyes.

And, yes, for the record, I am using the words “fiber art” and “thrilling” in the same sentence. We’re long past the days of 1970s macrame plant hangers. The show is so visually striking that Michele Ellis Pracy, the museum’s director and curator of the exhibition, requested that The Bee not photograph some of the works in their entirety – and skip two of the biggest and most visually stunning ones completely – to maintain the visual surprise for the viewer.

I readily agreed. It is a surprising show, both because of the large scale of the works and also the tiniest attention to detail, and I want to help maintain that surprise for the viewer. (But I’m still going to write about the non-photographed works.) In a sneak preview show of the exhibition, which opens Friday, May 20, here are 10 things that made me go “Wow”:

1. The first impression of Jeff Sanders’ stunning “Earth View II.” You can’t miss it. The opening piece for the exhibition, in the foyer leading into the gallery, is a wallop of a statement: a satellite view of the Earth rendered in a finely woven jacquard tapestry. (Using an electronic loom in Belgium, the artist painstakingly coded the color and size of each individual stitch by computer.) Sanders, who lives in Ojai, Calif., stretched the tapestry over a handmade convex form, giving it even more of a three-dimensional quality.

2. The psychological jolt of Lia Cook’s “Traces Past.” This large jacquard tapestry is made of woven cotton and rayon. In a series of moody/creepy depictions of doll faces, the Bay Area-based Cook explores emotional connections to memories of touch and cloth. She recently began using diffusion spectrum imaging of the brain, integrating the physiological fiber connections to actual fiber connections that are delineated in a woven image. The result: a softly haunting image that stirs an almost primordial, visceral response.

3.

The painting-like veracity of John Nava’s “R.E. II.” This large tapestry, also woven on an electronic loom, immediately brings to mind Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”: an intense, focused stare from a striking young woman who looks as if she has quite a story to tell. The Ojai-based Nava painted this portrait, then translated it to tapestry by computer coding. He’s known for three cycles of tapestries he created for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.

4.

The sculpted quality of Patti Handley’s “Turning Landscape.” The only Fresno artist in the exhibition, this 1980s-era work was one using a “punch-hook” method. Handley punched wool yarn from the back, then an electric sheep shearer to shave the individual strands down to various lengths, giving the work a topographic feel.

5.

The audacity of Robin Clark’s “Twin Trees.” Who else would have the idea of delicately scraping away the surface inks from legal-tender $1 bills, stitching them together to form an eerily whitewashed “canvas,” then combining the scraped-off ink with a special glue to paint an image of trees? Clark, who lives in Connecticut, has made a highly conceptual work that’ll make you think a little differently about the bills in your own wallet. Look for Clark’s tiny individual markings of each bill in the bottom right corner.

6.

The three-dimensionality of Michelle Kingdom’s “Some Imagined Future.” This Los Angeles-based embroidery artist, who is represented with six small works, strives to capture the “murky tangle of our interior world in a way that is both beautiful and haunting.” I’m entranced by the delicacy and contemporary pulse of the works. Look at the woman’s dress in this particular piece and the way it seems to billow out, giving a sense of texture and depth.

7.

The simple dignity of Martha Smith’s “United We Stand” pictorial rug. This woven work, depicting a New York skyline with the Twin Towers standing tall, is done in contemporary Navajo style. It was a tough project for the artist considering the Navajo taboos regarding death. There are many artistic memorials to Sept. 11 in the world today, but this has a special ache.

8.

The crazy complexity of Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo’s “Three Mongolians.” The artist describes herself as a contemporary American textile artist and caretaker of a sacred Tibetan tradition. Using the techniques of applique, she sews together pieces of fabric, then covers each seam with a single horse hair woven in silk. There’s a piece to the right of “Three Mongolians” that has a more traditional Tibetan feel – and must have taken countless hours to complete – but the more contemporary “Mongolians” is especially striking. Look at the lips and teeth of each of the women. Those are individual tiny stitches.

9.

The undulating energy of Audrey Sanders’ canvas and wood works. From a distance, the massive works of this Ojai-based artist look flat and monochromatic. But step closer and see how she uses the chicken-wire frame to create a rippling effect. It’s almost as if you could fall in.

10.

The halo lighting effect surrounding Jeff Sanders’ other major work, “Full Moon.” The artist used a 1938 photo of the Moon taken from Lick Observatory, and it’s just as dramatic as his “Earth.” The museum uses a simple spotlight to highlight the work, and the resulting halo was just a happy accident, Ellis Pracy says. But it seems an auspicious sign for a beautiful show that should elevate your view of what puts the “art” in fiber arts.

Fresno Art Museum summer exhibitions

Along with “Fiber Art Master Works,” the museum opens several other exhibitions, all locally curated:

  • “Rendering Homage: Portraits of a Patron” features 50 two and three-dimensional pieces from the collection of Los Angeles-based Joan Agajanian Quinn, whose portrait has been rendered by world-renowned artists including Robert Mapplethorpe, David Hockney and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
  • “Bob Stocksdale & Kay Sekimachi: Collection of Forrest L. Merrill” features wood-turned and fiber objects from the private collection of the Berkeley collector.
  • Pre-reception presentations by curators, lenders and artists: 4:30 p.m. Friday, May 20. Opening reception 6-8 p.m. Opening reception $10 non-members. Exhibitions run through Aug. 28. Fresno Art Museum, 2233 N. First St. www.fresnoartmuseum.org, 559-441-4221. $5 non-members.
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