“Like Any Other: No. 37” by  Julia Kwon (2019)
“Like Any Other: No. 37” by Julia Kwon (2019)

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As a material, fiber has as much ubiquity as paint—perhaps more given its everyday utilitarian qualities. You wear fibers, sleep between layers of fibers, dry yourself with fibers, walk on floored surfaces of fibers, even drape windows with fibers. Go to an art gallery, however, and more often than not you’ll find paint instead of fiber. But beneath the surface of all that paint: a fiber canvas.

So it’s refreshing to see fiber as the star of the show. Over, Under, Forward, Back, the Arlington Arts Center’s latest exhibition, features 10 artists working with fiber in various ways: exploring the traditional, using contemporary technological approaches, mixing it with other media, and unwinding its place through the thread of history.

Technology plays a part in the work of Brooklyn-based artist Robin Kang. Her designs, woven on a digital loom, are reminiscent of microchips: A meta structure in the content of the work, since the digital loom wouldn’t work without one. That structure is given further thought with the use of metallic yarn, suggestive of the copper in the chip that transmits all of those ones and zeroes. But none of the works have the perfection of Silicon Valley—not that those gadgets are perfect either. A curving line in planned pattern, frayed threads jutting out from the woven plain: These adornments and attachments are reminiscent of the various “patches” used to fix “holes” and other vulnerabilities in our gadgets.

That meta element (with a hint of the technological) is also present in the work of Olivia Tripp Morrow, one of Arlington Arts Center’s resident artists. One particular blanket, titled “Lashes,” is a patterned quilt that incorporates commercially woven items onto its tiles: false eyelashes, stockings, fake fur, and tassels. These are interspersed, in pattern, with custom printed blankets that use Morrow’s photography. The photos are close-ups of a nude figure that has been photographed under a crocheted blanket. There are also tiles of felt blankets, and rhinestones. Every element within the work has some suggestion of sexuality or intimacy, which is certainly more subtle than the work adjacent to it, entitled “Lips.” That piece has a bunch of mouth- and vaginal-shaped openings in its surface. It’s reminiscent of something Jerry Saltz might find transgressive enough to post on Facebook.

Another New York-based artist using a digital loom is Natalia Nakazawa, whose woven tapestries use digitally collaged cultural references from major museums. In one piece, a Dogon figure and an Aztec sculpture are visible. In another, a Hindu goddess and the carved mouth of a lion. Pattern plays heavily throughout the works; although the sources of these patterns are less apparent than the figurative sculptures, their underlying cultural significance is palpable.

The use of so many patterns highlights the global history and tradition of weaving. This concept plays most directly in “Our Stories of Migration,” which invites people who attend a workshop to outline their migration stories on a multi-patterned global map. Attendees draw a string from the beginning point of their family’s migration, to the end point. Many of the strings connect to an area around New York and New Jersey. Stories of Ellis Island spring to mind. And, considering the context of the exhibition, so too does New York’s history of migrant sweatshop labor in the buildings overlooking the mouth of Hudson River. The piece intends to spark the conversation of what it means to be a global citizen, but it’s difficult not to insert some additional baggage into the dialogue.

Julia Kwon’s takes a more traditional approach with her work. Using fragments of various fabrics, she stitches them together like a patchwork quilt. The process borrows from a Korean tradition of bojagi, which uses the cloth to wrap food or objects. Kwon uses her bojagi to drape mannequins, symbolically objectifying the “person” underneath. Oddly, the figures also look like they’re in really fantastic burqas, which are used so the weaker sex (men) don’t sexually objectify the wearer. Such a double read is likely unintended, but it does make the work more challenging. Paired with the figures are wall works: stretcher bars with their bojagi falling off. They seem like a quick nod to that issue of how textile work is not taken as seriously as paintings, partly because textiles are typically things we utilize. They’re objects. Art we hang on the wall—paintings—are these other things; they function as ephemeral ideas. Here the ideas take a lesson from Lucio Fontana or Sam Gilliam. Much like the labels on the wall, these bojagi buckle, their corners lift up, and they fall from their supports.

Sarah J. Hull’s “Ostinato” series takes checked patterns of black and white and inserts disruptions into the grid. For such effort, they are woefully underwhelming. The subtle and apparent variations in April Camlin’s embroidered and woven tapestries better illustrate the general concept of a disrupted grid. The patterns are more satisfying, and the disruptions are more apparent.

Danni O’Brien’s brightly colored latch hook rugs are sculptural, playful, and quirky. The loud colors, and willingness to incorporate alternative materials, are a thread that ties her work to that of Boulder-based Steven Frost’s pieces. So too do themes of adolescence and queer identity. Although, were it not for the titles and possibly some of the materials, either might get lost. For example, a shimmery gold-and-yellow piece, like a miniature cocktail dress on a gilded dowel, hangs in one part of the gallery. Entiteld, “I Wanted to Be a Cheerleader Like Todd and Patrick,” the amusing combination plays against concepts of heteronormativity. Then again, there are straight men on cheer squads, but probably not dressed like what’s hanging on the dowel.

As is usually the case at the Arlington Arts Center, the more experimental approaches are in the basement. In the Truland Gallery, local artist Rania Hassan installed a net whose various ends thread through the gallery and anchor to one of several painted mouths in various agape stages. It plays on the social aspect of knitting: Think sewing circles and quilting bees. Although, now such communities can also be found on the internet. But the way the net is illustrated on the wall, that idea becomes distorted: Of the 51 paintings of the same mouth, 49 are of the left side of the face, with only 17 connected to the net. It feels like a one-sided conversation.

Meanwhile, over in the Experimental Gallery, there is an installation of bird-and-deer netting by Sarah Stefana Smith. She projects similar images on the wall through the netting, which creates an abstract layering of the object, its shadow, and an image. It’s called “The Blessings of Liberty and An Expulsion Thereof,” which somehow is an exploration of the etymological difference between amend, mend, emend, and amendment. The explanation is an inarticulate snare that distracts from the visual webbing in the room.

Historically, textiles have been reduced to craft and decorative art. But the various approaches found within Over, Under, Forward, Back push against those notions while still embracing the value of technique. The stronger threads that stitch the exhibition together are connected to global heritage, social history, and personal storytelling. All three easily tie together into social practice, but even good exhibitions can have some loose ends.

At Arlington Arts Center to March 30. 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Free. (703) 248-6800. arlingtonartscenter.org.