42nd Annual Textile Exhibition, Olive Hyde Art Gallery
April 2-May 15, 2010
by Jane Przybysz

Perhaps it was the fact that I’d just finished reading Glenn Adamson’s Thinking Through Craft (2007), a provocative book that makes the case that “craft, as a cultural practice, exists in opposition to the conception of art itself….as a conceptual limit active throughout modern artistic practice.”  In a chapter that teases out what Adamson refers to as the “laudable idealism and tragic self-deception” that can be commonly found in crafts’ invocation of the pastoral, I couldn’t help but reflect on how many artists seem to find their inspiration in apparently unproblematic and totally decontextualized experiences of the natural world.  So I entered the Olive Hyde Art Gallery on the look out for artwork with content that engaged a specific context.

Art quilt Hong Kong Taxi by Jean Renli Jurgenson

I found just three artworks that met the admittedly unformulated criteria that served as my lens for viewing this show and held my attention with the questions they asked or issues they posed.  “Hong Kong Taxi,” an art quilt by Jean Renli Jurgenson, takes a dizzying aerial view of a lone red taxi cruising along a deserted urban landscape of high rise buildings that overwhelm small patches of green at their edges.  Seen from this angle, the taxi reads something like a wildflower whimsically disrupting the grids formed by buildings and pavement, more alive than the nature tamed by cement borders.

Ohlone Housecoat by George-Ann Bowers

Showcased in a gallery that featured multiple mixed media and handmade paper works by Linda Ortiz that paid homage to Native American culture with titles like “Shirt for Red Cloud” and “In His Moccasins” and “Rainbow Warrior,” George-Ann Bowers’ woven work titled “Ohlone Housecoat” drew me in first with its sculptural evocation of a life-size female body and, secondly, with the irony of its title.  Although the housecoat seems to have been woven as a flat textile, it has been manipulated such that it hangs three dimensionally, suggesting it might actually have been worn.  The fragility of the finely woven linen-like sleeves that have been added to the more coarsely woven body of the garment invite the viewer to fill in and consider the figure that is absent.

By itself, the work exudes a sense of dignity created by the strong vertical lines of the dress intersected by the one horizontal belt line and the quiet, carefully graded earth-toned color palette that comes from natural dyes.  But the artist has given the piece a title that brings to mind a 1950s suburban housewife–padding about in pink plastic curlers, housecoat and slippers.   I know little about women’s roles in Ohlone culture or about whether they conceived of space as “domestic” and private vs. public.  But this artwork made me curious to learn more.

Zona Sages’s It’s Written All Over My Face, full mask and detail

Finally, the work that continues to haunt me is Zona Sage’s fiber sculpture “It’s Written All Over My Face.”  The image of a pair of eyes–photo-transferred onto what appears to be onion-skin paper and peering out at you, framed by balsa wood strips that create the opening in what could be a gas mask or a burka–is searing.  The rest of the face of this mask is made from the image of a map also transferred onto translucent, skin-like paper.  Close-up you can see the dot identified as Bagdad.  Then you see Anbar and Iran and….  But mostly you see the eyes–presumably of the artist–witnessing what’s going on “over there.”  Standing back from the piece, the  thin wooden strips wrapped around the mask, covering where a mouth would be, and framing the eyes begin to look like bandages wrapped around the head of one of the many war wounded.  Them and us.  Us and them.

Jane Przybysz is the Director of the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles on South First Street.

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