In a 2009 performance titled Knitwit, maverick artist Barend de Wet, sporting a churchly suit and calling himself the “Knitting Bull,” loudly—like a lay preacher—implored his audience to “Knit!” In light of the sixty-four mostly contemporary works by thirty-three artists and collectives assembled for this concise survey of weaving, knitting, sewing, lace making, tapestry, beading, and embroidery practices, his entreaty was also a declaration of fact. De Wet is represented in this exhibition by Crochet (Shroud), 2013, a candy-colored knitted garment draped over a standing figure. It appears next to a color photograph by Siwa Mgoboza, Les Étres D’Africadia (After Les Demoiselles D’Avignon), 2015, a Picasso-parodying tableau with five black figures in costumes made by the artist from Shweshwe, a printed cotton fabric common in southern Africa.
Although mostly occupied with mapping the present, “Women’s Work” includes historical pieces that underscore the show’s thesis: Textile arts are often a collective endeavor and are encumbered by prejudicial, gendered assumptions. Africa, a large seventeenth-century wool-and-silk tapestry of Flemish origin that offers a hoary allegory of bounty and danger replete with the folkloric Queen of Sheba, is installed opposite two wool tapestries by Athi-Patra Ruga, The Glamouring of the Versatile Ivy, 2015, and Invitation . . . Presentation . . . Induction, 2013, both figurative works that portray the artist’s queer-influenced matriarchal reimagining of postapartheid history. A rectangular lace insert produced in the 1830s by a Cape Town slave known only as Melati smartly draws attention to the city’s history as a garment-making center—this once robust industry has been gutted by globalization. Zyma Amien memorializes this proximate history in two installations composed of found objects: Unpick, 2015, a display of atomized sewing-machine parts, and Paying Homage, 2016, three vintage sewing machines framed by vertical lengths of fabric decorated with sewing pins.
Jody Paulsen did not have art historian Robert Pincus-Witten in mind when, in a summary of his personal aesthetic credo, he told an interviewer in 2015: “Right now, artistically, I’m in a maximalist phase. I don’t like any blank spaces.” If anything, Paulsen was describing his generous approach to composition in his felt collages, pieces featuring pithy text slogans referencing his mixed-race queer identity that, as finished work, operate as soft sculpture and exuberant public confessionals. His propensity toward visual surplus is also a hallmark of this show: Here, Paulsen manages to fit nearly all twenty-one of his felt collages, eight photographs, seven assemblage pieces, and three floor-based installations featuring branded handbags and stuffed birds, as well as a display of forty white shirts and black ties, into one room.
Paulsen’s collages dominate. They invite comparisons with Jeremy Deller’s processional banners and Tracey Emin’s quilts, although, attitudinally at least, the work is closer to Warhol’s in its love affair with consumer culture. Paulsen rarely ironizes the fashion brands and mainstream icons quoted in his work. Homoexotica: The Real Housewives of Disney, 2016, a nine-by-fourteen-foot collage, is exemplary: It offers straight likenesses of various Disney characters fringed by a tropical border of delicious monster fronds. His neo-Pop method is not without a critical conscience, however. The Love Algorithm, 2017, anatomizes the prejudices of queer cruising sites by simply quoting user preferences—“no blacks” and “no fats”—while Uganda and We’ll Never Have Jamaica, both 2016, skewer Uganda and Jamaica’s homophobic laws with speculative heraldic designs featuring exotic birds and bare-chested men wielding clubs. Heartburn, 2016, shifts the register: Picasso’s 1937 cubist portrait of Dora Maar, faithfully reproduced here, emerges as an unexpected source of his color-drenched maximal aesthetic.
The Kenyan-born artist Michael Armitage was thirteen years old and waiting outside a cinema in Nairobi when he witnessed a bizarre scene: A naked man with a tire around his neck was being chased through the streets by a mob, in an act of unlawful gang justice. Necklacing (all works 2016) depicts Armitage’s memory of the pursued subject, with his head turned to reveal a clownlike face. The haunting and humorous image is framed by two sutures in the canvas’s surface. Armitage paints with oil on cloth made from Lubugo bark, which is more commonly used to make sacred fabrics. When stretched across a frame, the material naturally perforates.
Several other works concern Baikoko, a sexually explicit dance that originated in coastal Tanzania. In Baikoko at the Mouth of the Mwachema River, the dancers seem to hover above the ground. Their ecstatic practice, performed by women only, has faced growing government censorship. For Strange Fruit, the artist drew on a news item from Kenya in which a man accused of witchcraft was killed by a mob. His wife, bereft, committed suicide. A tree is portrayed from the vantage point of someone looking up at its canopy of leaves. The small soles of a woman’s feet dangle high among the twisting branches—the subtle horror of the scene is sharpened by the title’s reference to a well-known protest song about lynching.
The exhibition offers a curious and compassionate study of sexuality and survival in contemporary East Africa. There is a duality of feeling in these images—as though, to Armitage, the society he represents is both flawed and sacrosanct, like the cloth on which he paints.
In his latest exhibition, “Ether is all that is,” G. R. Iranna examines the fragility of life through holy ash. His interest in using religious material to ruminate on existential questions was apparent in his recent contribution to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, From Ash to Ash (all works cited, 2016), a giant egg of cinders that references the origin of the cosmos in classical Hindu philosophy. On view in this show are paintings and installations that feature the sacred residue of ancient fire-based rites, alluding to the cyclical inevitability of birth and death and the impermanence of matter, including the self.
The ash-on-paper work Heaven on Water achieves an evocative quality by facilitating a restrained but soulful dialogue between its surface and the faint lines of powder arranged on it. Meanwhile, the three-part series “Ethereal Beauty” offers works that resemble complexly patterned carpets in the form of singed ash-on-paper tapestries as well as vividly painted blocks of ash; both reiterate a desire to replicate the care and intricacy that characterize rituals. Along with the carpet, other idioms and media from Iranna’s oeuvre that recur in this exhibition are arboreal motifs and the tarpaulin base on which they are rendered—in particular, The Tree Disappeared into Ether and Lofty Tree bring to mind his 2014 New York show “Tempered Branches.”
Apart from the diptych Beautiful Burning Tree, with its silver foil highlights, the most striking piece on display is Loved Ash, in which ash blocks are set into the framework of an old-fashioned mirror, meant to expose the absurdity of vanity and ego in the face of mortality. This earnestness does sometimes go overboard: One work spells out a sentence from the Upanishads in embers, making a fetish out of the eschatological that is almost banal.
Prabhavathi Meppayil’s second solo exhibition in New Delhi reflects her curiosity about spatial logics and her interest in using intensive and vernacular processes. A descendant of goldsmiths, Meppayil uses the tools and techniques of the craft to trouble the boundary between artist and artisan. Her stark white gesso panels in d sixty one, d sixty, d fifty seven, d sixty two, d fifty six, and d fifty eight (all 2016) almost blend into the walls––the incisions and embedded wires are revealed only as one nears the works. The lines of the delicate metal contrast sharply with the thick mass of substratum through which they are glimpsed, and this creates a songful effect.
One of the works on view here, d fifty five, 2016, is a five-part piece featuring intricate etchings of patterns on gesso—made with a goldsmith's tool, a thinnam—and each unit features a different design. Her engagement with Minimalism is shared with artists such as Nasreen Mohamedi and Agnes Martin, but it is also informed by traditional practices, which prompts the viewer to reflect on the intersection between individual imagination and inherited methods of artmaking.
In d sixty four, 2016, Meppayil coated 144 molds used for making traditional earrings (called jhumkas) with gesso and mounted them on the wall in the form of a grid. From afar, the spherical dip in the middle of the cubes mimics the surficial interventions in the other works, drawing out the artist’s preoccupation with planes and dimensionality. Her attentiveness to geometries, particularly in how depth is interpreted in the gap between painting and sculpture, is also apparent in d sixty three, 2017, a series of 225 gesso blocks arranged as a grid, the cubes uneven and imprecise like the handmade markings on the flat works.
No matter how “smart” our objects may now be, we don’t expect them to discern whether they’re used correctly, or if it all. But Iskandar Jalil believes there is such a thing as an ethical pot or vessel: It embodies the maker’s aesthetic ideals and value placed on the medium. A pot made in the right frame of mind would actualize the spiritual dimensions, time, and place of its creation, similar to how a bottle of wine can disclose much about the conditions and influences of its site of origin. Such a theory may carve out a space, in fine art, for studio pottery—a mode of artmaking that has come about only within the last century—cracking a strained boundary between the categories of artist and artisan, one tested by the mid-twentieth-century emergence of modernism’s insistence that art refuse any functionality. Iskandar, a Singaporean artist whose course of practice dovetailed with the ascendancy of the nascent group movement of the Modern Art Society in Southeast Asia in the mid-1960s, initiated the discourse around the intersection of ceramics’ functional underpinnings and modernism’s fascination with the new; here, he presents a survey of works made from that time to the present.
References from decades of extensive travels appear throughout Iskandar’s sculptures, all made from local clay: Vessels are covered in Arabic-Jawi and Roman text and incorporate influences such as Japanese shibui and wabi-sabi, while his signature blue glazes are inspired by land- and skyscapes across Scandinavia. Certain works such as the undated (Untitled) (Mangkuk Tingkat)—a stack of stoneware tiffin boxes—and (Untitled) Water Container, 1999, can fulfill what are apparently their utilitarian purposes. However, many others serve more poetic means, including the ongoing, undated “Culture” vessels, a series of totemic pillars, each one too narrow for the wooden ladles that crown them; Untitled (Mother and Child), 2004, a pair of codependent, multitextured donut-shaped azure moldings that prop each other up; and the undated amorous S curve of She, a vertical stoneware strip that folds back in a slight, provocative recline and is adorned with a single delicate broach sphere. We may no longer employ ceramicists to make dishes; these humble forms transcend tugs of obligation.
Since launching their couture house in 1998, Dutch fashion designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren—also known as Viktor & Rolf—have been lauded for their imaginative womens-wear lines and runway performances that so often directly respond to the conventions of the high-fashion industry. Here, over forty of Viktor & Rolf’s most iconic haute-couture and ready-to-wear pieces are displayed on headless mannequins standing on low-lying plinths. Interspersed with these displays are miniature versions of their designs on porcelain dolls, one of which is a robot that walks, waves, and turns on a scaled-down runway. Placed in front of wallpaper that features thousands of the duo’s design sketches spanning their entire career, standout pieces include a gray wool trench coat featuring a three-dimensional rendering of the word “NO” protruding from under its collar, and a fanned black pleated dress suspended from an aluminum harness with small runway spotlights and working speakers attached, intended to be mounted on the shoulders of some unfortunate model.
Presented in beautiful lighting, Viktor & Rolf’s “Russian Doll” collection, 1999–2000, comprises nine jute haute-couture dresses that are as much nostalgic remnants of the duo’s 1999 autumn launch as they are fresh displays of impeccable craftsmanship. (For its inaugural unveiling, the designers themselves dressed the doll-like model Maggie Rizer as she stood on a rotating platform: Rizer began the performance of sorts outfitted in a frayed burlap slip before gradually being transformed into a heavy haute-couture sculpture.) While one premise of the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition—that fashion can be art—seems a symptom more of status anxiety than of serious inquiry, it is Viktor & Rolf’s technical proficiency that resonates most strongly here, transforming borderline gimmicks into exquisite experiments with line, shape, color, and volume.