at the Textile Arts Centre

Appropriately, the Textile Arts Centre has opened the new season with a show that draws attention to contemporary fiber artists’ diverse processes and ideas. After all, pluralism is no stranger to the textile arts, which have long embraced styles ranging from the abstract to the figurative, and techniques and designs ranging from the highly elaborate to the extremely simple. Curated by gallery director Richard DuBeshter, “Stretching Our Roots” presents recent works by artists who’ve devised innovative approaches to the traditional arts of quilting, applique, weaving, beadwork, papermaking, knotting, and embroidery.

New York artist Susie Brandt’s quilt, Dainty, at first glance looks like neither a quilt nor fabric–and it’s definitely not dainty. Hung loosely on a wall so that it falls in folds, it lacks the geometric shapes and repeated patterns of traditional quilts. Instead, it’s composed of countless overlapping bits of lace ranging in color from bright white to faded brown. Because the pieces are layered, none remains discrete; together they form a continuous, richly textured whole that from a distance resembles the variegated surface of lichen or stones. Oddly enough, this curious illusion holds up even after closer viewing reveals that Brandt’s materials are man-made. Vacillating between nature and culture, her quilt resists categorization as it leads the viewer from forest to parlor and back again.

Chicago artist Mark Newport’s knotted sculptures also explore the expressive potential of ambiguity. Sceptre and Mace, two small clublike forms made of knotted waxed linen, lean precariously at eye level against the wall, supported by thin, carved wooden brackets. They’re simple forms but not simplistic–tension accrues from their resemblance to primitive weapons as well as from Newport’s tight knotting technique. Yet, since they’re hollow and literally dependent on wall and bracket, they’re more vulnerable than threatening. With their vaguely phallic shapes and brackets resembling high heels, these androgynous forms maintain a discomforting, surreal edge.

Though not overtly figurative, Newport’s pieces do have strong associations with the body. But lacking any means of mobility ultimately they seem powerless–a quality that also characterizes the freestanding sculptures made of paper pulp and floor wax by Lisa Yetz. Yetz, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute who now lives in Rockport, Massachusetts, exploits the sculptural possibilities of handmade paper in the two works displayed here, both of which portray a large female figure. These hollow forms reveal not the woman herself but her undergarments–in each a simple camisole and floor-length slip falls in numerous convoluted folds. These pieces speak of the contradictory traits and impulses that make up an individual: though they’re lightweight in appearance, they’re clearly modeled on a heavy body, and though their contours are fluid and graceful, their poses are terribly awkward–one tips perilously backward, looking as though at any moment it might fall. Stripped of physical features and outer garments Yetz’s woman remains a ghost, simultaneously exposed and hidden, present yet unknowable.

The woman who confronts us in Missouri artist Betsy Nimock’s Depression Woman is far less mysterious. Dominating this paper and fabric collage is an old sepia photograph of a grim-looking woman, surrounded by wrinkled fragments of 1930s and ’40s magazine ads, patterned fabrics, and yellowed bits of lace. The large, centrally placed photograph acts as a kind of anchor, as though through sheer force of will the woman holds these disparate elements together–order reigns, but her expression suggests it’s been obtained at no small cost. As we read the ads for sensible undergarments at bargain prices, or trace the stitched seams of handmade cotton dresses, we enter this woman’s world, a world of limited means in which scraps are somehow transformed into finery (her brooch is made not of gems but of a button and folded satin flowers). Unfortunately, Nimock has pasted across the woman’s forehead a distracting bit of torn paper bearing the words “Women and Waste,” unnecessarily restating what the visual elements already convey.

Texts, however, have sometimes been central to the textile arts, especially in embroidery and needlepoint samplers. Michigan artist Margo Shermeta draws on the often religious or instructive content of sampler texts in her two works. Both feature antique white linen hand towels hung on ceramic rods, and Shermeta has embroidered phrases on the towels in white thread. Their extreme elegance conveys the desire for an impossible refinement, even purity, while the texts, like those of more traditional samplers, speak of morality, of orderly lives and upright behavior. But Shermeta gives these homilies some unexpected twists: one reads “Duty leads a few to virtue and the rest to discontent,” and another, “Virtue carries its own reward and a mighty sad consolation.” In these pieces Shermeta begins to uncover the emotional difficulties traditional samplers ignore, but I found myself wishing for more, both visually and conceptually.

Embroidered texts are also important elements in the work of Suzanne Lentz, who is now studying at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Pillow consists of a wall-mounted rectangular quilted base on which rests a large white pillow whose edge bears the cross-stitched words ” . . . a dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.” Tucked into circles of sheer fabric sewn all over the pillow’s felt surface are smooth, flat stones; at its center is a noticeable depression. This extraordinary pillow and its innumerable stones evoke both the past–days in childhood spent collecting completely ordinary objects–and eternity, countless seasons in which these stones have been shaped and smoothed. The cyclical aspect of nature is symbolized as well by the spiraling designs Lentz has stitched over the white quilted base. Small stones also appear in her other work, My Grandmother’s Dress, in which the pebbles, the sheer fabric, and a few statements about the artist and her grandmother speak poignantly of the distance between the living and the dead and of the strong bonds connecting family members, even those who’ve never met.

“Stretching Our Roots” presents 20 works by 14 artists in a small space, and as a result the exhibit at times feels crowded. And though it does indicate the diversity of contemporary fiber art, not all the artists shown here achieve the kind of profundity that Lentz, Newport, Yetz, and Brandt do. Mimi Holmes’s small beaded figures aim for a disturbing fetishistic presence, but their excess of glittery metallic beads and trinkets destroys the edge they might have had, rendering them almost playful. And though The Collectors Exhibition, Lynn Zetzman’s painstakingly appliqued quilt depicting a woman surrounded by possessions (beaded handbags, brooches, countless buttons), initially impresses the viewer with its wit, in the end it remains on the level of good-natured but unanalytical representation.