Fiber arts have risen to prominence in recent years, especially with artists who consider textiles in their work such as Ghada Amer and El Anatsui. In a neighborhood as multidisciplinary as Bushwick, it is nothing new to see artists turning “traditional” materials on their head as a conduit for something completely new. Despite increased appreciation for fiber-based work, Azettagh, a new exhibition at OUTLET Fine Arts which pairs four contemporary women artists with a selection of contemporary Moroccan rugs, brings an arrestingly fresh perspective to works which redefine “craft” as design.
The four artists featured in Azettagh all work with textile, but the diversity within each of their respective practices is what unites them in an aesthetic sense. Brece Honeycutt explores organic, flowing elements through process-based, layered compositions, while the playful geometry in Rachel Hayes‘ paintings serves to refocus the eyes on the simple, modular elements which make up the intricate patterns of the Moroccan rugs hanging nearby. Robin Kang and Samantha Bittman share a fascination with coded structure, frequently referencing the grid and themes of mechanization in woven wall pieces, calling to mind the historic role of manufacturing in textiles.
“I wanted to look at the point in history in which modernism approached abstraction through regression into folk arts,” curator and conceptual artist Julian A. Jimarez-Howard explains. While modern artists involved with Surrealism and Cubism were known for their fascination with tribal art objects, he points towards Le Corbusier’s use of Moroccan Beni Ourain rugs in his interiors as a more relevant reference. “He called them nomadic murals,” a description which translates aptly to the rugs presented by Kantara, a fair-trade Moroccan women’s weaving cooperative, at Outlet. Viewed in dialogue with contemporary works which appropriate colorful geometric patterning and embrace materiality, one forgets the exhibition’s title translates to “I weave,” as sculptural concerns seem to take precedent.
Within the context of an exhibition which draws heavily on geometrical abstraction, I found the presentation of the rugs as both wall hangings and sculptural objects particularly refreshing. This concern with their presentation as material objects connects them with the contemporary works more directly than if they had all been displayed as hangings, taking the focus off of their decorative qualities. The back room is filled with stacked and curled up rug arrangements, forming a makeshift lounge, with Kang’s video installation of thousands of hands weaving ancient Peruvian designs at its center. This space provides a cozy venue for contemplating the relationship between mechanization and hand-fabrication.
Honeycutt’s atmospheric eco-prints, which utilize natural and cast-off materials from near her home in Western Massachusetts, stand out for their subtle color and fluid contours. Moving through a space filled with geometry and pattern, her new works cause a mental pause. While the recycled elements and natural dyes create a rustic feel, there is a visceral quality which calls attention to the laborious hand-layering process. Considering these wall constructions in tandem with Bittman’s obsessively hand woven surfaces highlights the intimate process of working with raw materials to create a sense of order.
While Azettagh celebrates innovative contemporary women artists, the political nature of weaving as art versus traditionally feminine craft in this exhibition is hard to miss. The fact that the women of the Bauhaus school were mainly relegated to the weaving studio (to incredible results, nevertheless) came to mind immediately, so I asked Julian to comment on these issues. “When you boil it down, our distinctions between this and that are nothing more than arbitrary constructs, often based upon years of culturally built upon prejudice,” he explains, noting that the curators wanted to “show that textiles are just as rigorous and valid an art form as any other.” Indeed, weaving is celebrated merely as a common bloodline between the artworks, showcasing the utility and ingenuity of women artists working across the globe. The works are not treated as artifacts, but as freestanding worlds in dialogue with one another. In this sense Azettagh reveals cultural heritage and experimental practice as two parts of whole.
Azettagh, featuring Kantara, Samantha Bittman, Rachel Hayes, Brece Honeycutt, Robin Kang at OUTLET Fine Art on view through March 2, 2014. Hours: Sat – Sun, 12-6pm.