Perambulating the Bounds

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Jessie van der Laan

I'm a sucker for certain kinds of art objects, and it may even come down to certain effects, independent of any higher level processing. One of those things are surfaces that are tricky, ambiguous in perspective, color and form. They draw me in, and because when I get to them, they issue forms and structures that seem to combine and recombine in an insistent, quiet flow. I ran into that a couple of weeks ago with work by Jessie van der Laan in an exhibit at the Ground Floor Gallery. This is a group show of artists working with textiles, curated by Herb Rieth from Memphis. 

van der Laan's work here consists of embroidery hoops covered front and back with layers of fabric, the top layer very sheer, with stitching and appliqued fabric on and between the layers. The hoops are mounted on the wall in groups of two and three to make up the pieces.

As an example, the piece "cumulonimbus" (all the pieces are named for cloud types) consists of a large oval embroidery hoop with a smaller circular one positioned above it at a 10:00 position. A strip of wavy fabric is attached to the back panel.  Another flap of fabric folds over the top of the hoop. Fine stitching forms little waves on the top layer and connects to the back. van der Laan uses contrasting colors for the cross stitches that connect the thread, so here you have some yellow strands crossed with black to make tendrils that look like garter snakes. She also seems to have stained the back panel fabric with light washes of ink, which gives another layer of patterns deep down in the space. The space between front and back is less than inch but it still requires you to pore into it. 

The second hoop is darker, and the bottom layer features what may be a blot of ink or applied fabirc that looks like a splash.

You've got at least four or five types of events creating the shapes and structure--the base fabric front and back, places where those fabrics dimple and wrinkle, the threads weaving across and through it, pieces of fabric that look more or less solid depending on whether it's on top of the sheer layer or behind, and then those ink stains.You can't be entirely sure what's from ink or even water stains, and what is fabric with different degrees of opacity.

Each hoop has a different look. In one, fabric bunches up inside, reducing the sense of inner captured space. Some have strips of ribbon suspended in the interior space. She uses some colors consistently, like a blue thread, but others sparingly. A lemony yellow appears in one place. Dark purples in another piece. The groups in combination all have contrast, definitely between lighter and darker compositions, but the contrasts are subtle, in keeping with the inherent subtlety of all effects in this work.

In most cases the colors are muted by the layers of intervening fabric, and by the way threads are deployed as filigree across the surface and interrupted by cross stitches. It was even hard to discern the color of portions--in one piece at times my eyes played tricks with one portion that at times looked brown, but at times seemed to take on a coppery sheen.

The visible embroidery hoops make no secret of their reference to women's traditional handwork. What is more, the works all combine one larger hoop with one or two smaller ones--the phrase hens and chicks comes to mind, like with plants.

These works have an ephemeral effect. They seem to vibrate just on the edge of focus. Colors and shapes emerge diffidently. The multiple layers both enclose an interior space and produce a surface plane, spongy as it may be.

van der Laan gave each work the title of a type of cloud (cumulonimbus, stratocumulus, pyrocumulus). I could look up each word and try to match the characteristics of the works with the qualities of the clouds, but that seems uninteresting. I'll accept the general title metaphor of clouds. The pieces certainly have cloud-like qualities, but for me it makes them less enjoyable to think of them as representations. Or I think the range of reference is broader--"cumulonimbus" seems to be as much about water, and "stratocumulus" brings to mind flowers and plants.

Graphically, the works move towards being hardly anything, and work that indulges this sort of subtlety runs the risk of lacking enough graphic presence not to keep it from fading into a series of background designs or visual pads. Again, for me a big part of the pleasure comes when an artist walks you towards or up to the line where the imposed artistic order seems to run the risk of falling into pointless chaos. A artist can go too far for me, to a point where I stop enjoying the work. van der Laan's pieces have little risk of that because the organizing devices--embroidery hoops, and a range that contains variety but also adheres to some limits--gives them an inherent resonance.

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