Fiber Artists Explore Art + Identity at browngrotta

As part of its three-decades-long tradition of championing artists and showing artworks in the field of contemporary fiber arts, browngrotta arts in Wilton will present a multimedia group show, “Art + Identity: an international view,” on view April 27 through May 5, with an opening reception on Saturday, April 27, from 1 to 6 pm. The 32nd annual spring exhibition includes over 50 international artists whose works are represented in major museum collections around the world.
With artists hailing from five continents representing such countries as Australia, Canada, Finland, Japan, Korea, Chile and America, the exhibition explores questions of identity and art in a global context. The identity that each artist explores may be personal, political, social, geographic or cultural and may provoke interesting dialogues.
The exhibition will include ceramic vessels, woodblock prints, three-dimensional sculptures of paper, wood jute, wax linen, steel and lead, and basket forms of bark and twigs, ginger and bamboo, willow and cedar. Several artists have made wall works of linen, viscose, steel, cotton, horsehair, coconut fibers and in one instance, silk made from silkworm raised by the artists. The techniques the artists use are equally varied, running the gamut from weaving, plaiting and knotting to molding, crocheting and photography. The exhibition is the gallery’s only show each year (not including online-only shows) and is open for a brief 10 days in quite a striking space, an 1895 barn, which dramatically shows off the art.

Gallerists and co-curators of “Art+Identity,” Tom Grotta and Rhonda Brown said the exhibition’s theme is broad enough for artists to interpret it in a host of ways.
“The news is not hypothetical for us,” Brown said. “We have artists from Venezuela who we are worried about, we have artists in South Korea for whom the political situation has been interesting, we have loads of artists in the United Kingdom where Brexit is creating all kinds of issues. We just started thinking about how global our world and how global their experiences have been and whether or not they thought that had a particular impact on the art they produce.”
Art is not made in a vacuum these days and Grotta said their annual exhibitions bring artists together to show them what is happening here. “They come from all over the world to our exhibits because they want to see what the rest of the world is doing,” he said. “It’s interesting in that not only are our artists global, our clients are global. It used to be where people went to galleries that had a brick and mortar presence. Today, the collectors and artists are from all over the place, that’s really a sign of the times.”

Among the international artists featured is Rachel Max from the United Kingdom, who cites multiple influences. “I’ve been hugely inspired by Japanese basketry,” she says. “The material I use is imported from Indonesia and the technique is torchon lace, which I first saw used on a Scandinavian basket.” Nnenna Okore, who grew up and studied in Nigeria with artist El Anatsui, known for his complex assemblages, combines repetitive processes with varying textures to make references to everyday Nigerian practices and cultural objects. She is represented in the exhibition with “Ashioke,” fashioned from multiple ceramic pieces, individually sewn into burlap. Kyoko Kumai of Japan weaves, sew, knits and twists metallic fibers, spun steel, and titanium to pay homage to the many gods she senses in Japanese nature.
African artist Neha Puri Dhir says in an artist statement, “My journey as an artist has been a quest to impart a visual language to the varied influences and interactions that have left a mark on my mind. The visual language of this art reflects many world cultures. The fabrics have echoes of many age-old resist dye techniques, including shibori from Japan, bandhej from India, and adire from Nigeria.” Westport artist Norma Minkowitz’s work, “The Path,” conveys a universal theme — “the path we each take regardless of who we are or where we began.”

Many works in the exhibit have onion-like layers of meanings, such as John McQueen’s piece, “In Praise of Empty.” The renowned artist, who lives and works in upstate New York where he collects twigs, vines and bark around his farm to use in his art, made a sculptural basket for this exhibit. It’s a throwback to his earlier such works, which he has gotten away from, but said this had a very immediate feel for him. “All baskets are empty until you put something in them so the empty space inside is what interested me after making hundreds [of baskets]. Empty is more than empty,” he said in a video interview with the gallery. The words running around the rim of the basket are deliberately hard to read and McQueen said he made them abstract so that viewers are forced to linger to suss them out. No spoilers: readers need to go see this in person but the message here is connected to place.
Once dismissed as mere craft before being recognized as fine art, fiber arts have evolved from the 60s and 70s when it started coming off the walls, becoming larger, more dimensional and experimental. Perhaps most interesting however is this form of art is very rooted in history.
“Yes, there are new technologies and new things happening. For instance, last year we showed works done in fiber optic, which technically could not be done previously but basically the aesthetic is — it’s one of the oldest forms of art even though it’s a very contemporary medium,” Grotta said.
Asked about the future of fiber arts, Brown said, “I think people will continue to press and experiment and try to figure out how they can contemporize it. People find it appealing because of the technique and because there is an emotional component to it and it also has some political ramifications because it is associated with women’s work so there are going to be people who are going to continue to try to utilize those factors and make stronger conceptual statements.”
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