Sheila Hicks: Material Voices

by Robert Mahoney

July 1, 2016

With fabric art having become a specialty in its own right, and it proliferating like a parallel universe in the arts, at times seeming to want to recreate the entire painted-sculpted, installational-video part of the art world in fabric, and then too, with Sheila Hicks having herself been busily making her own private universe for the past 60 years in fabric, I did not enter into her latest exhibit at the Joslyn Museum in Omaha with much enthusiasm. But then, surprise! This turns out to be a really smart exhibition, with real punch and drive. Why? It would seem there are two curatorial storylines that buoy it up. One, the curator, the Joslyn’s Karin Campbell, and Hicks seemed determine to accentuate the ritual roots of fabric art in history, and how Hicks in particular worked with this idea of ritualized fabric throughout her career. That concentration tightens things up considerably. Two, it would appear that in order to fully realize this concept, perhaps because many of the original pieces are gone, Hicks has over the past five years revisited many of the body of works she developed over the years, meaning that, repeatedly, one is surprised that a series dates from 1970 to 2015, meaning that Hicks has been shoring up the record, making works for this exhibit. This, too, while sometimes a suspect art world practice, in this case casts a contemplative, retrospective, searching gaze over the whole proceedings, as if Hicks herself is asking, like Augustus at the end of his days (though Hicks is only 82), “Did I play my part well upon the stage?” These two curatorial storylines repeatedly interact to give the proceedings a razor sharp, greatest hits sort of feel that offers one a succinct education in the potential of fabric art to enrich and deepen the fundamental purposes of art. 

Sheila Hicks,  Emerging Grace

Sheila Hicks, Emerging Grace

As I am not a fabric specialist, I cannot comment on Hicks’s workmanship in fabric, nor do I much care to. Also, I am uninterested in the merely incidental transmaterialization of, say, formalist painting into decorative arrays of the same look that just happen to be made out of fabric, to placate audiences that might be “afraid” of painting, so need to get cozy to fabric. I do not exult in fabric or its twists and turns in the abstract either. I would have to say that my feel for fabric in the arts derives from the field of archaeology and in particular Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s majestic studies Prehistoric Textiles (1992), and Women’s Work (1995), on the instrumental role that fabric, rendered into artistic forms, has played in the ritual life of human beings in all cultures (Hicks’ source for this point of departure was George Kubler). According to this discourse, fabric, as opposed to canvas, or paint, or plastic, or other surfaces, is so deeply connected to the sense that we as creatures with skin that gets hot and cold need fabric for comfort, protection, keeping, saving, pocketing, hiding, covering and cowering, that we are, as a species, profoundly connected, almost as a second skin, to the world of fabric. Moreover, we have interjected into fabric such deep feelings, about body and about soul, that it remains difficult to abstract it from the basic agencies of symbolic life. Hicks repeatedly emphasizes the fact that for her, throughout her career, fabric was not a mere substitute surface for formalism by crafty types, but a deeper, richer material with ritual purpose. The enchantment of this technology (Gell’s phrase, meaning I don’t care how it was done, I wonder that it was) begins with a whole series of what might be called the “drawings” of Hicks’ fabric universe, small rectangles (she calls minimes) of carefully woven fabric of various sorts, but, the thing is, all holding in their fibres some fragment objects like corn husks, seed pod cones from a Chilean tree, seashells, clamshells etc.  Emerging with Grace (2016) is richly woven, but with a shell caught in it to specifically nail down a memory; Foray (2015), tucks a feather in it, like the page of memory book too. In each case, as the fabric is involved in holding together the square, it feels like a page, but then when it catches in it the object, it becomes a container, a holder, a purse and, strangely, the object, nondescript and without value, becomes sacred in a way. I am pretty sure Hicks was playing with this effect, and that she got it, and it works, time and again. Nor are these precious, they feel like lucky tokens a person might carry on their person, carefully wrapped in a pouch or whatever made of something substantial enough to keep them. All of these works are intriguing, they come off as curious relics, with stories, no doubt, woven in (Barber makes a special point of linking fabric-making to storytelling, and the two to women, the first storytellers), even votive offerings, or even sacred reliquary artifacts. As art objects with specific agency their small cloth nature reminded me of brandea, which were swatches of cloth medieval pilgrims brought back from sacred places, the small cloth touched to or wiped on the holy place, to bear the holiness home with them too. In Lares and Penates, Hicks more explicitly brings fabric into the ritual realm. Lares, of course, were the household gods of Roman homes, represented usually in a small painted niche, with small, inexpensive statues placed therein, and then offerings were made it on a daily basis. Penates were created to more specifically focus their good will on household provisions (penus—not penis—referring to that), and penates were also set up at crossroads in every neighborhood in Rome to watch over the wellbeing of that district. Psychologized, all this sanctification of everyday worry was simply a daily prayer to keep the home safe. While Westerners no doubt would lay flowers or such to offer up to them each day, Romans offered cakes, and other oddities, other societies might well bundle them, and Hicks as it were, perhaps, bundles into a memory pack a twisting and twining of fabric that in its shape and particular size or contours, captures a day. The shape, the intensity of the twining, then the layering with sometimes metallic fiber, to intensify the magic, all create very ‘alive’ works. This work splashed all over the wall also suggests that such daily offerings would be arrayed over time, like on calendar (though after a time, of course, though accumulation was appreciated as symbolic and power-adding for a time, such sites become littered and even cluttered, blunting the magic, so had to be culled). But for that, these works dated from 1990 to 2013, I would have liked to know which were there the longest, which the newest, to nail down their respective ritual power best. 

At some point, Hicks graduated to freestanding fabric structures which, while in forms getting ever more elaborate, became self-sustained works of art that stood on their own free of ritual. And yet for that they only elevate it to a higher level. By far the knock out masterpiece of this show is Tapies de Prieire (1972), a gargantuan, or may I say mammoth (18 ½ feet long!) expanse of wool woven in two layers in accordance with Moroccan prayer rugs to create a sacred place closer to god consisting of lighter wool inside a broad expanse of luxuriating darker wool. My initial reaction was, wow, what a 70s vibe, and what I meant was, in the 70s it did seem like all-over carpeting was the thing, design wise, it swept over floors and even walls, it went everywhere (before the world returned to hardwood floors), and Hicks’ piece, though too heavy to start to fly, has just this awe-inspiring, oceanic volume that takes one in and makes one feel like an orisant of some cult smothered in sanctifying fabric. The size of it also vibes on the broad carpeting of mosques, but such an expansion by an artist could also be cross-culturally symbolic, unrelated to Islam, as, for example, Jan Van Eyck somehow understood that the floral designs on Turkey Rugs imported to Flanders in the 15th century represented paradise and thereafter, not only staged all of his Madonnas on these rugs, but spread secret flower symbolism throughout his work). There is another prayer rug too, smaller, but with more dimensionality, thick, coming out off the wall, it too is terrifically present. Along these lines, but back in more secular ritual space, one is reminded that Hicks’ career got her first oomph by corporate sponsorships in a time, the early 60s when, again, fabric arrays of abstraction were thought to be a more manageable and maintainable atmosphere-creating way adorn a lobby with art. Though this path to publicness in art has turned into a specialist cul de sac in which art dies, at the time it had a breath of fresh air promise. A small reliquary sample of her original proposal for a kind of op art fabric something at the Ford Foundation in the 60s has that airy, streamline, 60s vibe, and then she recreated in 2013 a reprise version of the lost mural, which is also cool. 

Sheila Hicks,  Mandan Shrine

Sheila Hicks, Mandan Shrine

When Hicks ventures into form, and form in its own right, she sometimes wavers: I did not decide on Mandan Shrine (2016), as its “ponytails” (revisiting some 70s work Hastings-born Hicks original did, though only one original is in the show) seemed too tightly woven into a formalist lockdown to reflect on either the Mandans or a Karl Bodmer painting that inspired it. But, flowing along in a ritualizing mode now, the more formalist works that work best here were those that wrestled with the raw tangle of natural fabric, enlarged into installational forms. The base idea here are drawings (for example, Drawing with Fibre (2014)) consisting of pushes and pulls in serpentine and other shapes of raw dyed Mohair fabric. The idea of cordage, and of ropes, is then expanded upon, often with bamboo shoot cores to the assemblies, in works like El Tiempo (1989), in another terrifically weird corner piece, all black, and then  the expanse of Perpetual Migration crawling across the far wall. Some of this work creates transmaterialized tableaux that imply, compared to the original inferred materials, memorialization of horror, such as Overflow (2006), where a spill of seagrass rope metaphorically overflows out of a bathtub. This tendency culminates, though there are some vertical efforts by Hicks that get too droopy and lifeless for me, with a bright white recreation of a waterfall, that in its exultation in the ritual power of fabric to enrich and keep and protect and offer and honor those things in life we cherish, acts here as a final baptismal blessing for the whole proceedings. This is by no means an exhaustive Hicks show, I could not really call it a retrospective, though, in a way--it is, it is rather a revisiting, a pointed memoir, curator Campbell and Hicks looking back and considering the meaning of it all, exemplified in one theme. For that, this is tight, bright, concise, succinct, intelligent and enlightened exhibition of the master of fabric art, who might, in her seniority, be reminding her followers in fabric, too often today resulting in the overdressed technical-showoffy “wow art” fabric-ness of too many fabric-in-itself shows, how simple and serious we humans are about true fabric.