Crazy-happy collage paintings, mournful costumes, wizardly sculptures and candy-colored sweaters with pleats—New American Voices at the Fabric Workshop and Museum is a four-course feast. The works, by artists recently in residence at the FWM, don’t quite go together, but each artist is given so much space it’s like four solo shows. I can’t say this often, but you will find something to love here.
Sprawling through the museum’s upstairs and downstairs galleries and into the satellite space up the block, the works by Jim Drain (Miami), Jiha Moon (Atlanta), Robert Pruitt (Houston) and Bill Smith (O’Fallon, Ill.) explore big issues like race, chaos, pop culture and multiculturalism. These mid-career artists with national reputations live in regions outside the major art centers of New York or Los Angeles, but their objects are provocative and beautiful, and the subject matter more honest and thoughtful, than a lot of what you see in New York’s Chelsea.
Bill Smith, featured last fall in the first New American Voices, continues to astonish with three examples of his computerized sci-art sculptures dealing with randomness, chaos and the natural world. Smith said at the opening that he’d studied biology and worked in a microbiology lab until deciding he’d rather do his research in the art laboratory.
A large black emu egg, looking part Faberge, part toilet-tank float and, with the antenna on top, part Sputnik bobs in water held in a translucent, jellyfish-like basin, the mouth of which is just large enough to allow rotation. Tall, thin, carbon-fiber rods with electrical contacts encircle the contraption; every once in a while as the egg tips, its antenna completing an electrical circuit. At that point some things happen, depending on where the antenna hits: A sound plays as the point of contact is logged, then an ongoing graph is projected on the wall along with an animal image (tiger, emu, elephant).
If Smith evokes the randomness of the universe, Jim Drain’s industrial-knit sweaters evoke the world of planning, building and design. Drain has knitted up two pleated sweaters whose overall shapes evoke paper lanterns with tropical-fish stripes of color. Embellished in the interstices with beads and patches of colored fabric, these oversized sweaters placed on armatures with arms outstretched, are not really about clothing. They are about shape and color—think of them as knitted 3-D paintings. Drain’s show also includes two room dividers and some blown glass lighting elements hung from the ceiling.
Near Drain’s work but not intruding on it, the costumes, sculptures and fake-tintype photos of Robert Pruitt create a kind of faux African-American history museum. Guns feature prominently, most of them fetishized, like in “Headdress with AK47,” in which a cheerfully beaded toy rifle is embedded in a headlike sculpture made entirely of weave.
You won’t find anger in Jiha Moon’s cheery collage paintings. Their combination of Korean and American pop-culture cartoon images with brightly colored cloth and even brighter touches of paint make for riots of color and celebration that blow away the winter blues.
Through the years, the FWM has worked with more than 400 local, national and international artists in its residency program. As the residencies are great gifts to the artist, the exhibits that result, like this one, are fantastic gifts to Philadelphia. Don’t miss this one.
Through spring. Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214-1222 Arch St. 215.561.8888. fabricworkshop.org
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