at the Textile Arts Centre, through October 8

Perhaps you’ve heard a female friend joke as she eats an especially rich dessert, “I might as well apply this directly to my hips.” In Suzanne Ragan Lentz’s video Consumption a woman does just that, using gauzy white fabric to plaster a cream pie, a chocolate cake, and two angel food cakes to her hips. At first it all seems wonderfully silly, but after she pours a gallon of milk over the mashed cakes and starts molding them to her body, the tone shifts–her obsessive self- involvement becomes more wearying than amusing. When, after a long struggle, she succeeds in getting the mess off you wonder what needs and desires the whole strange process answered.

How, you may ask, does a video end up in a fiber-art show? If nothing else it’s a sign that the boundaries between visual-arts media continue to blur. Many of the works in “Fiber 94”–juried by Anne Wilson, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago–could as easily fit into a show of sculpture or installation art. The inclusion of Lentz’s videos and other works only marginally constructed of fiber suggests that for some contemporary fiber artists textile-related concepts are more important than textiles themselves.

Some of the 18 artists in the show (7 are from Chicago) put quilting, weaving, and basketry to unexpected uses, while others employ such nontraditional materials as aluminum screening, panty hose, and bubble wrap. Many, like Lentz in her videos, are concerned with the body–how we clothe it, shape it, protect it, and hide it. In an untitled work Nancy Morton encases a freestanding, life-size cement figure in a wide roll of bubble wrap; all we see are the top of the head and two thin ankles and feet, turned slightly inward and buried in a low mound of dirt. Protected so thoroughly that virtually every sign of individuality remains hidden, Morton’s figure is unknowable, as inert and alienated as the figures that populated George Tooker’s bleak paintings of the 50s and 60s.

Heidi O’Neill’s Age is disquieting as well. In it yellowing strips of old rubber are fastened to a circular metal support and roughly sewn together to form a hanging basket. A bit of red velvet rests inside, and from the bottom hangs a cluster of curly, silver gray hair. The effect is that of energies draining away; the velvet looks deflated, like a vestige of a fuller, more vibrant time. In contrast, Jocelyne Desmarais considers childhood in her small freestanding piece titled A Futile Attempt. Using aluminum screening, she’s fashioned a little girl’s dress whose ruffled yoke is embroidered with a tiny basket of pink and yellow flowers. Placed over a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar, the stiff wire mesh looks as fluid and soft as cloth–a visual tour de force that comments succinctly, though somewhat obviously, on the confining aspects of frilly, feminine clothes.

In the show’s most elaborate piece, Andrea Fuhrman’s Personal Evidence, the humblest of garments–socks and panty hose–are playfully freed from their usual roles. Fuhrman transforms them into more than 100 highly individual creations that hang from the wall by bits of thin wire and incorporate myriad materials, such as feathers, hair, tacks, paintbrush bristles, rusty scraps of metal, rubber balls, and in many cases a coating of wet-looking resin. Like a display case of insects Personal Evidence both fascinates and repels; it’s full of tiny, surprising moments. In one object, made from a stretchy ribbed sock, a loop of copper wire forms a small nestlike enclosure at the cuff; tucked inside is a cluster of seeds, like a colony of eggs waiting to hatch. Some objects seem womblike, others phallic: in one, a narrow black balloon hangs provocatively out of a black nylon sock that’s decorated with a single crystal sphere and a glittery seam of pink, blue, and silver threads.

In contrast to Personal Evidence’s exuberance are more understated works using traditional forms and techniques, like Brett Bennett’s Anti-Quilt. Hung against a gallery wall, it’s pieced together from interlocking squares and rectangles of black cloth. These sometimes repeat and form larger shapes, but in a haphazard fashion. Gone are the colorful fabrics and repeating patterns we expect of quilts; in fact, the piece sports no quilting stitches at all. Offering neither comfort nor warmth, Anti-Quilt painfully evokes lack, and Bennett heightens its unhappy effect by placing small radios, each tuned to a different station, behind the fabric. The incessant chatter of staticy sounds makes it a potent symbol of chaotic, media-drenched American domestic life.

Neither traditional nor experimental methods guarantee success–what matters is that ever-elusive perfect marriage of form and content. Deborah Hobbins’s weavings (Here She Comes in Red, There She Goes in Red) are exquisitely executed, but unfortunately–like much recent art–the significance of their imagery relies heavily on written explanations. And while Andrea Ray’s Three Is a Community is initially striking–it consists of three blue-striped pillows bunched and wrapped by plastic tubing and mounted close to a wall–it’s difficult to fathom. Buried in each pillow is a speaker playing recorded voices, but the volume’s so low they can’t be understood (at least not when the gallery’s air conditioner’s running). The piece ends up an exercise in frustration.

The unassuming stars of “Fiber 94” are Jiro Yonezawa’s three bamboo baskets, which inject a welcome dose of poetry into a show that favors issue-oriented work. Each takes a similar form: a narrow, slightly curved tube rises a few feet from a loosely woven, nestlike base. Their odd proportions make them slightly awkward, even humorous, yet like just-sprouted seedlings their gestures are sure and graceful. Proving that craft can still be vital, Yonezawa’s delicate baskets easily hold their own amid their more clamorous experimental neighbors.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrea Fuhrman.