“Material Pleasures”

The Fabric Workshop at ICA

The Fabric Workshop has, since it began two years ago, invited over forty artists from across the country to experiment with fabric silkscreening. Work produced during 17 of those residencies was the subject of ICA’s “Material Pleasures” exhibition. In many ways, the Fabric Workshop is set up along the utopian lines initiated by Ruskin and Morris during the arts and crafts movement of the late 19th century and, while it lacks the socialist fervor of that movement, it is similarly concerned with the elevation of taste in consumer commodities. As described in the “Material Pleasures” catalogue, the workshop’s purpose is “to act as a catalyst in the creation of new patterns and forms for the fabric of the future,” a stance which also recalls the idealism of Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops where the likes of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell pitched in to raise Britain’s level of discernment in domestic design. Indeed, it is the Fabric Workshop’s parallel attempt to marry high art and commerce which throws it into such a fascinating historical context and such an ambiguous artistic position. Running through the “Material Pleasures” exhibition is an unavoidable dialogue on the difference between art object and artist-generated merchandise.

All of the workshop’s artists have created decorative, repeat patterns for flat fabric. A few have so successfully addressed themselves to the creation of commercially viable designs that their work looks homogenized, too real to be art. This was most apparent in the show’s wearable pieces, which were either cut to artists’ specifications or made from standard Simplicity Patterns. Unfortunately, as the exhibition was labeled, there was no indication as to which garments were artist-designed and which were Simplicity’s. The information would have been helpful if only to clarify the individual artist’s degree of responsibility for the final product.

Italo Scanga’s Thorn Skirt and Vest combo is a case in point. His pattern is composed of barbed twigs, solid little circles of primary colors, and gestural slashes. It’s an attractive, inventive print, but it is applied to such a prosaically cut outfit that it could have come off a rack of a hundred. If there weren’t other garments which raised the same issue, Scanga’s piece might have looked like a commentary on the banality of consumer coordinates. It didn’t. Next to equally marketable wearables by Gary Bower and Marjorie Strider, it simply looked like competitive merchandise. Cynthia Carlson took the bull by the horns in the catalogue description of her Evening Pajamas: “In imitation of my very favorite painting clothes, I made pajamas. When you print on silk, they become very elegant, and when you cut holes, they become very sexy. And that’s exactly what resulted: very elegant, very sexy evening pajamas, not art.”

Clearly, the Fabric Workshop needs to test the water in a variety of different areas. That so many of the artists in the show looked perfectly comfortable in the ICA setting bodes well for the workshop’s entry into that rarified context. A number of the pieces generated at the workshop were simultaneously on view at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art’s show, “Clothing Constructions: An Exhibition of Artists Who Make Clothes,” confirming that, for curators casting their lines into late-’70s art, the Fabric Workshop is meaningfully stocking the pond.

The work exhibited at ICA can be divided into five categories: marketable wearables, costumes, “clothing constructions” (courtesy of LAICA), flat fabric, and fabric which comments on sculpture. The most obvious wearables came from Scanga, Bower and Strider, all of whose repeat patterns had been applied to what looked like budget multiples more comfortable in J.C. Penney’s than the ICA. Bower’s pastel feet with painted toenails wander over the kind of fussy lingerie ensemble Florence Henderson might model for a layout in Family Circle. Marjorie Strider’s crisply stylized paint daubs are “splashed” across white coveralls in a design cliché which could have set off an adolescent fad in the ’60s. Perfect for a date with Ricky Nelson.

Treading the art/commerce line more provocatively are Carlson, Karl Wirsum and Richard Tuttle. Carlson’s pajamas are cut along pret-à-porter lines, but the artist clearly understands the fantasy imperative of haute-couture. Fashioned from silk, screened with a diminutive dot pattern, and punctuated with die-cut holes, her ensemble brings to mind Roger Shattuck’s definition of fashion as “the most competitive theatre of all.” On the other hand, Karl Wirsum’s Pajamas and Bathrobe are neither sexy nor elegant. They’re what killer bees might wear to disguise themselves as tourists. The inspired Mondo-Polynesian lunacy of his print turns the mundanely styled garments into a commentary on vernacular resort wear. Richard Tuttle’s prints are good looking but, like Wirsum, he manages to eschew practicality for commentary. His pants are, for example, perfectly proportioned except for the legs which are three feet too long for anyone other than a stiltwalker. Tuttle’s ironic exaggeration is a tidy example of how an artist can avoid the esthetic ambiguity of wearables while generating perfectly marketable fabric designs. He also verges on costuming, a discipline more overtly explored by Alexa Kleinbard and Jeff Way.

Kleinbard’s Sorceress Cape is the most opulent piece in the show. A pattern of sinuous jungle foliage is screened in metallic gold and silver on panels of hammered silk. Worn, it moves like a liberated kimono; and hung, floating like a mobile, it has the presence of an angel in a Persian miniature. Jeff Way has applied his lurid variations on camouflage designs to a pair of hooded costumes which look like Mardi Gras uniforms for the Ku Klux Klan; they’re both antic and somewhat creepy.

Jody Pinto and Judith Shea are represented by “clothing constructions” which are less comfortable than wearables and more studiedly ironic than costumes. As interpreted by Pinto and Shea, they also have a punning intensity. For Pinto, the pun is deadpan literalism. Her pigskin Hair Shirt is silk-screened with tufts of hair sprouting from the armpits and neck. The application of gender to the unisex garment provides the kind of paradoxical jolt Djuna Barnes described in Nightwood: “God, children know something they can’t tell; they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!” Pinto is an artist who goes for very visceral responses, and Hair Shirt, with its tactile pigskin surface and spiky anemones of hair, is a provocative footnote to her environmental work. Shea’s punning is visual, as in her Four Continents, which traces a garment’s metamorphosis through four individual stages-pants printed with a black and white grid are mounted on bond paper with an identical grid—and forms a relief capable of inflating to sculpture in the round. Another piece, composed of four vests of natural cotton canvas “torn from the bolt,” has, in its inventively simple structures and bold primary colors, the masterful naiveté of a Matisse cutout.

Robert Kushner’s Lilies, a monochromatic floral design printed on cotton twill, cut in a half-circle and hung flat on the wall, could just as easily be worn as a cape. It’s also the most exuberantly “drawn” piece in the show. The design has the distinction of appearing completely spontaneous in a medium which is not all that conducive to spontaneity. Kushner, whose work has always combined an antic fashion awareness with a precocious art sensibility, comments in the catalogue: “My greatest hope is to walk into someone’s house one day and see my design on their couch.” It seems like a reasonable expectation.

Kim MacConnel, like Kushner, would appear to be another natural for merging workshop concerns with his painted fabric collages. Not on this outing. His Bamboo Curtain is claustrophobically busy and not particularly interesting. A “Kim Plaid” is silkscreened onto a bolt of sateen which has been over-gridded with bamboo poles “rigged to raise and lower like a lateen sail.” Domestic objects, like telephones and toasters, are drawn on blocks of color and printed over, without obscuring, the underlying plaid. MacConnel’s real talent still seems to lie in his response to commercially produced fabrics, not in their creation.

Scott Burton’s Fabric for Window Curtain, described in the catalogue as composed of “patterned window mullions seen against the dark blue of a night’s sky,” is as cleanly and intelligently pared down as his sculpture. It would, in fact, make an excellent backdrop for the sculpture. Sam Gilliam shapes his fabric into a soft sculpture utilizing 19 screens to achieve a dense, rather muddy surface texture on Belgian linen and canvas. Gilliam makes full use of his double-sided print, but, in the end, the piece is pretty much an exercise in maintenance. Initially, works by Joyce Kozloff and Ned Smyth also seem little more than extensions of their ongoing interest in the decorative. However, both have generated wall pieces which are very canny in their architectural concerns. Kozloff integrated three screened silk panels with two of her ceramic pilasters. The pilasters form niches for the fabric and call attention to the contrasting textures—the tactile shift from ceramic to silk—and set up a lavish, controlled installation which elaborates on and extends her Islamis concerns. Smyth’s Philadelphia Pattern Palm (Arcade of A,B,C,D) is also on screened silk and is, with its four palm-shaped pillars, clearly related to his poured concrete sculptures. Smyth is interested in mid-eastern design but with a more whimsical eye than Kozloff. His motifs are grand—gestural fantasies which evoke the Hollywood exotica of von Sternberg more than any historically specific references. His arcade of palm stencils is mounted flush on the wall and screened with a wavy lattice grid separating triangles of fish and flora. The colors have a soft metallic glow similar to Kleinbard’s and show a kindred interest in exploiting the sensual potential of luxe fabric.

One of the oddest, most intelligently humorous pieces in the exhibition was Charles Fahlen’s mock-Navajo rug, Fresh Start. Screening a new material called Sculptex (a substance which rises when heated) onto industrial felt, Fahlen takes a spin into decorative art, comments on the ubiquitous throw rug, and comes up with a chunky, assertive little object that, while only 3/4” deep, packs a lot of sculptural authority. Fahlen’s Fresh Start is a perfect illustration of the Fabric Workshop at its best. When the work addresses itself to new possibilities, not alternatives, it can be very strong. When it implies that, say, Mary McFadden or Halston haven’t really risen to the consumer’s need for creative, printed fabric, it comes a cropper. The workshop artists who chose to subvert commercial practicality in the interest of individual creativity fared best, indicating both the Fabric Workshops’s potential for expanding the range of contemporary textile design and pioneering fabric prints as a legitimate fine art concern.

Richard Flood