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Why Is Textile Art So Rare in NYC?

Although NYC is known for embracing all styles of artistic expression and even inventing a few, one form has a difficult time finding friends here: textile art. Hold on a minute, you say. What about Billie Zangewa’s show at Lehmann Maupin last fall, Sanford Biggers at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, or those quilt shows the American Folk Art Museum does every few years? Well, yes, those are artists or craft forms that use textile materials, but we don’t know of any gallery that specializes in textile arts (but if there is one, let us know so we can visit) or has more than a general interest in the technique.

Some of this must be a bit of art world snobbery, where this kind of material is seen as part of craft or trade objects as opposed to a genuine artistic method. But we tend to feel it’s more about ignorance, because it happens to be very difficult to work with cloth or fibrous materials: fabric or raw textile material has many quirks and challenges from a technical as well as artistic point of view. But when an artist succeeds in molding the material to an idea, the result can be deeply satisfying both intellectually and visually.

To see what we mean, stop by the Fridman Gallery on the Bowery and see their latest show ‘Dindga McCannon: In Plain Sight’, which has a beautifully expressive selection of McCannon’s textile works along with paintings and a single sculptural piece. For decades, her desire to educate and inform viewers about Black American history through her art has been the cornerstone of her practice and teaching and in the process, created a memorable narrative style.

Other forms of textile art may be a little more traditional in form, such as clothing, but no less complex and inventive. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibit, ‘In America: A Lexicon of Fashion’, takes various intangible qualities of humanity as a filter to examine American fashions from the 1940s to the present. Outfits are contextualized through ideas ranging from nostalgia and comfort to belonging and consciousness, with the hope that these themes will encourage visitors to reflect on both the history and current social issues of the United States, just as the clothing designers have done. It’s a new direction for The Costume Institute’s annual show, and we’ll be watching with interest to see if the public has an appetite for it after the political and public upheavals of the last eighteen months or if they prefer the extravaganzas of the past.

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Digging Below the Surface

We don’t intend to be trite here but our weekly round-up of art gallery choices skews heavily towards appearance first, meaningful impact second. It wasn’t meant (how many times have we heard that sorry excuse?) but it does bring up an important point about looking at art, things that don’t really seem to qualify as art, and things that aren’t art, but a lot of people want to label as art. Still with us?

The short answer to this dilemma is that art can and should be a broad classification. There’s no need to be difficult about it: lots of objects, if presented and explained well, qualify as art. Many people feel uncertain about this. After all, why call it art if it really looks like junk? Is it some kind of weird insiders’ joke? Sadly, we can’t answer that (but believe us, there are definitely days when it feels like a bad joke), we can only say keep going to galleries and museums, look at everything you can, learn what your own interests and tastes are, then expand on that.

And if that seems a little too difficult, you can always begin by using our incredibly useful and interesting recommendations.

We start with that master of sly commentary, Andy Warhol, a man who was so comfortable with lowbrow tastes and highbrow concepts that art students everywhere are still struggling to match him. His most famous visual style has been stolen so many times that when you see a genuine Warhol, it looks a bit fake. But just when you think there’s nothing to consider, he can turn on a dime: work that seems facile or even tasteless can seem, on closer examination, to have complexity and emotional bite below the surface.

Philip Guston engages in a similar bait and switch, only his method is to use cartoonish images to startle and shock, mentally shaking you until your teeth fall out. You think these canvases are ugly, brutal? he says. Look at the real world, with all the hate, oppression, and violence humans do to each other. This happened before, it’s happening now, it will happen again. Guston challenges himself and the viewer to face the acceptance of complicity in these deeds, then to change their thinking and push back against these acts however they can.

Finally, in the ‘Gallery Shows’ section, we feature Ravishing: The Rose in Fashion at the Museum at FIT. This flower is the living embodiment of going beyond surfaces, renowned throughout history for physical beauty as well as its symbolism in various cultures. Roses are ideal for the multiple intentions and meanings that fashion adores, the idea of borrowing a magnificent splendor to cover an ordinary figure, the painful thorns that lurk below the flower and leaves, protecting itself against the harsh world…we could go on but our internal editor thinks we’re getting a little too florid here. Just take it from us: this exhibition is beautiful, provocative, and a fantastic tribute to this perennial favorite.