This past weekend, I went with friends to see an exhibit of fiber art at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Whereas the quilts we’d seen at the Museum of Fine Arts this past summer were two-dimensional, hanging like tapestries on the gallery walls, the woven, stitched, and crocheted works currently on display at the ICA are billed as sculpture, a medium that exists in all three dimensions.
Sculptures are inherently pedestrian, inviting viewers to walk around and view them from multiple angles. Whereas a painting has only one good side, sculptures have many. Most sculptures are solid and substantial things, their shadows being the only part of them that potentially moves. But fiber sculptures are knitted from the negative space between individual strands, and this gives them an opacity that solid sculptures lack. Looking at a woven work, you’re simultaneously looking through it, your fellow museum visitors becoming part of the piece as they stroll past or linger to look.
Whenever I linger to look at fiber art, I experience two complementary impulses. The first is an almost irresistible urge to touch the piece, using my fingertips to read its texture like braille. To me, textiles are inherently tactile, so there is something inexplicably cruel about an exhibit that asks you to admire fiber sculptures with your eyes alone. The second impulse I experience when viewing sewn, knitted, or woven works is the urge to make my own. If curators won’t let me touch what others have made, then the only way to satisfy my eager fingers is to keep them busy with work of their own.
I never learned how to knit, but I was a crafty kid during the heyday of both macrame and latch-hooking, and in college a roommate taught me how to cross-stitch. In each case, I enjoyed the calming repetition of each individual knot or stitch following the next: a meditative monotony I practiced long before I knew what meditation was. It’s been years since I’ve either knotted or stitched: whenever I’m tempted to begin again, I remember all the projects I started but never finished, my interest in textile arts focused more on the process than the finished product.
When I started cross-stitching in college, I’d often do it while watching TV with my roommates, the predictable parade of one stitch following another fitting nicely with the desultory conversation that good friends enjoy over an interesting show. I particularly remember cross-stitching while watching CNN at the start of the First Gulf War, my roommates and I having friends and classmates who had been called up to serve mid-semester. It felt like our civic duty to watch the news even though there was nothing tangible we could do to help, and cross-stitching gave our nervous hands something to do that felt productive.
These days I read during the hour or so I spend after taking the beagle out and getting settled for the night. While J readies dinner, I read with the TV in the background, the sounds of sports or news serving as a sonic backdrop. I could, in theory, spend this time knotting or stitching, but for the time being I enjoy reading, my particular talents leaning more toward texts than textiles. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate fiber arts with the vicarious joy of someone who can remember herself doing something similar.
Click here for Leslee’s account of our trip to the ICA. If you’re in the Boston area, this week is your last chance to see Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present, which is on display at the ICA until January 4. Enjoy!