Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008

More obsessive art on offer in Bethesda

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Courtesy of the artist
Dawn Gavin’s ‘‘Subduction” is made from slivers of maps reattached to form a conceptual landscape that boggles the mind with its complexity.
This certainly seems to be the season for obsessive technique, and it is mostly the work of women artists. After last month’s exhibit of Amy Lin’s work at Heineman Myers Gallery, two other Bethesda galleries are showing work that emphasizes technique, on art where meaning and process intersect.

‘‘Committed,” the work of Fiona Ross, Dawn Gavin and Stephanie Booth at Fraser, and ‘‘Stitched,” Maria Simonsson’s fiber sculpture at Waverly Street, are linked by the common goal of keeping content intimately related to materials and to the way those materials are used.

Gavin’s ephemeral ‘‘Subduction,” painstakingly installed on the gallery wall only to be disassembled at the end of the exhibit, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. A series of painted gray pentagons forms the basis of the work. If they were three-dimensional and could be fitted together, they would make a globe. Their gray color is reminiscent of Jasper Johns, whose intellectually provocative map compositions Gavin’s work brings to mind. A delicate, lacy web of paper is attached with pins that keep it about two inches from the wall’s surface, thus allowing it to cast interesting shadows. It is made of all the roads in the United States, sliced out of an atlas with a scalpel and laboriously reattached to create the web. Gavin’s work often appropriates and alters found visual documents like maps. In her own words, through the processes of ‘‘alteration, isolation and dissection [in] the assimilation of these materials,” the artist retains what is still there from before and creates what is now latent — a ‘‘cartographic landscape” that ‘‘exists precariously on the threshold of the visible and the invisible.”

Equally compelling are Fiona Ross’ ink drawings. The artist’s statement makes it clear that ‘‘technique and material are fundamental [to] the content” of these works; ‘‘the means and the message point to each other in an indexical, material loop.” This idea is perfectly represented by the new ‘‘unicursal labyrinths” included here, that is, a finely rendered unbroken line creating an intricate, mesmerizing form. In ‘‘Accusative Unicursal Labyrinth,” the forms suggest index fingers pointing at each other. Other works explore the process of crystal formation and math based fractals that become three dimensional as the drying ink buckles and wrinkles the Japanese paper. The tiny surfaces of the ink, as in ‘‘Fractal Orbits on a Loop,” reflect ambient light, creating the effect of marcasite in a finely wrought brooch.

Booth’s documentary-oriented work focuses on the mundane, on the repetitive routines of ordinary life that define our identities more completely than do those few special events we tend to memorialize. Fittingly, the repetitive processes involved in making and installing her work are meant to mimic the repetitiveness of daily routines. For example, ‘‘Shoe Timeline 1994-2000” is made of small cut-out photos of all the shoes in the artist’s closet in those years, each overlaid with text referring to wearing them, and each hung with a push-pin in a string formation directly into the gallery wall. Minute records from a computer-generated spreadsheet of every item of clothing in the artist’s closet and the date it was acquired occupy 14 small panels in ‘‘Excel at Fashion.” Works like this exude a sense of the obsessive-compulsive that is nevertheless strangely attractive.

Simonsson’s fiber vessels stand on the edge between ‘‘craft” and ‘‘art,” a distinction feminist artists specifically challenged in the 1970s that continues to be problematic. Adopting craft techniques, especially those involving fabric and sewing, was a political act, defying discrimination against ‘‘women’s work” by purposely making art — intended and defined as art — with these techniques. The fact that Simonsson’s vessels invite visual comparison with ceramics is interesting because these same issues are also now significant, exclusive of gender, in the fields of ceramics and glass.

The moment the viewer lifts one of Simonsson’s pieces, the visual comparison evaporates. The physical experience of lifting a work like ‘‘Sister I,” that looks like a large ceramic vase, frustrates expectations. Made, like all Simonsson’s vessels, on a wire armature (she uses coat hangers) with sculptors’ mesh and quilt batting over which the fabric cover is hand-stitched, they weigh practically nothing. They look hard, but are soft.

Generally, when a ceramic or glass object has no clear function, and is aesthetically or content driven, we call it sculpture. But the definition remains blurred with a piece like ‘‘Blizzard,” which might be used as a basket. Yet, with its cosmic iconography and brilliant blue color, ‘‘Blizzard” is indeed content driven, and is part of a group of works connoting the cold, water and ice of the artist’s native Sweden. The shapes of the three ‘‘Viking” vessels evoke those ancient curved ships. The ubiquitous wire spirals and geometric patterns recall both old and new Scandinavian designs.

The handmade quality of this fiber sculpture, the careful folding of the fabric and the sewing of it through the layers in a slow, meditative but tedious process, holds the references to the ancient and the present in a state of equal tension. Without the exactitude of quilters (crafters), the stitching is uneven and, in many pieces, is used as undulating line. In all cases, it’s at the heart of what these works are signifying, which despite their tactile and visual appeal, is something deeply felt.