A stitch in time

On first view, Susie Brandt’s large wallhanging, “After Albers,” is simply a spirited study in earth tones — a pleasingly textured work with about the same visual appeal as, say, a bowl of mixed nuts.

Once you learn what it’s made of, however, the piece becomes exhausting.

Brandt constructed the entire tapestry from the pantyhose of workers at a New Jersey bank, using the same kind of plastic potholder loom you might remember from grade-school art class. A visual replica of a wall hanging found in Anni Albers’ 1927 book On Weaving, Brandt’s piece seems to “support” nine-to-fivers (pardon the pun) even as it broods on their soul-dampening lifestyle.

That’s merely one take, of course. The work is part of a larger textile exhibit currently on display at the Asheville Art Museum; and as guest curator Ann Batchelder points out, “This show is not about … telling people what they’re supposed to be seeing. It’s about bringing your own reaction to the [pieces] — and then building on that.”

Though decidedly individual in appearance and execution, the works are ultimately bound by a potent demoninator: memory. Batchelder, the former editor of Fiberarts magazine, allows: “[In assembling the show], I was looking for an umbrella idea, a major theme that would address [a common direction] of contemporary artists working with textiles. There are certain themes in contemporary art that the textile medium addresses as well as, or better than, other mediums. I was looking for what makes [textile] work particularly powerful — and memory seemed to be that theme, for me, mainly because [the exhibited artists] rely on textile history, processes and traditions that relate to collective and individual memory — something that’s very accessible to people, and something we all have preconceived ideas about. These artists are taking associations automatically connected with textiles or cloth, and [presenting] other points of view.”

Brandt’s “Ate” takes direction from that perennial exhortation of women’s magazines that dieters should keep track of what they eat via a “food journal.” Never one to shirk her duty, the artist faithfully recorded every bite of food that passed her lips in 1995. The evidence — stitched in red on what appears to be a giant napkin — struts in neat rows, emitting admirable sass: “Eggs, sausage, Cuban beans and rice potato thing, tic-tacs, coke, beer, portabello mushrooms,” bleats the Jan. 21 “entry.”

“What’s exciting about this show is that the experience is much more participatory. … The viewer is seen more as an audience, and is actively, physically involved in the memory process,” declares the curator.

“Everyone brings their own individual response — and none of those responses are invalid,” she adds.

Though clearly an ode to the past, pieces like Betye Saar’s “Lest We Forget, The Strength of Tears, of Those Who Toiled” — a series of linked vintage washboards painted with Aunt Jemima-like characters — hovers in a dateless dimension. Saar’s mixed-media installation “A Loss of Innocence” is literally suspended in time: A vintage christening dress hangs from the ceiling; between insets of lace, words like “pickaninny” and “tarbaby” trim the garment’s lower tiers. The dress brushes a tiny chair, on which sits an even tinier, antique photo of an African-American baby wearing a similar (or maybe the very same) dress. Memory, here, is voluminous, ghostly — and not likely to secure a final resting place anytime soon.

Says Saar: “My concerns are the struggle of memory against the attraction of forgetting.”

The show has been labeled Remnants of Memory — and while the title’s first word of course refers to leftover fabric in the literal sense, its implied design is neatly exemplified in the embroidery-and-applique miniatures of Darrel Morris.

“I … wanted to make something out of nothing,” Morris notes in his artist’s statement. Mission accomplished: The fey “Self-Portrait with Cat,” at 4.25 inches by 3.5 inches, is as poignant a statement as the exhibit offers. Elaine Reichek, on the other hand, works large. Her “Ten Little Indians” stretches to fit a motherlode of political machination. The mixed-media installation features 10 identical, child-sized American Indian vests, jauntily angled to suggest a non-native expression of Indian dress, rather than the “real thing.” A framed sewing pattern for the garment precedes the row of vests; on the other end (and altering them by its presence) is a large vintage photograph of “Grey Owl” — in reality a British charlatan named Archie Belaney, who successfully posed as an American Indian chief back in the 1930s.

Reichek’s embroidery-on-linen “Sampler (The Country Was … )” uses that popular, old-fashioned medium to offer a much deeper lesson than that bestowed by your typical schoolhouse sampler: “The country was made without lines of demarkation, and it is not man’s business to divide it,” the artist stitches, quoting Heinmot Todyaklet (Chief Joseph).

In fact, ferreting out what lies beneath the top layer of textiles is a primary aim of the exhibit, reveals Batchelder. Anne Wilson’s “Lost” is a chair draped with a piece of white cloth that suggests a towel — but the piece’s main attraction is a lush covering of dark hair that clings to the cloth with bawdy zeal.

“She particularly uses human hair to jar people’s memories about what’s really human and vulnerable,” Batchelder notes delicately. Wilson’s three-dimensional collage “Despair/Disperse” is another invitation to the unspeakable. The curator explains:

“She took her family linens from the 1940s — you know, the white tablecloth, napkins, items like that, and rather than trying to cover up [their] imperfections, she focused on the holes and the burns, opening them up and [inviting viewers] to dive below the surface of what you are typically presented with, and explore. … What was really going on with the family? What was really happening there?”

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