Why not try something different?
This seemingly modest suggestion has drawn generations of artists to the Fabric Workshop and Museum’s residency program in Philadelphia over the years. The invitation has led to exhibitions in which, for example, a sculptor explored dance, a video artist tried sculpture, and artists of every stripe explored screen printing on fabric. Its best shows have been deep and extensive explorations of a single artist’s desires and ambitions at the time of the show, including both successes and failures.
“Hard/Cover,” on view until Sept. 26, is a group show — part retrospective and part new — that documents how some artists have responded over time to the invitation to innovate. Most of the artists are best known for working in ceramics. All made use of FWM’s screen-printing facilities and help from artist-technicians to produce variations on, or more often, backgrounds for, the works for which they are known best. It was organized in collaboration with the Clay Studio.
The result is a show that, at its best, provides insights into the thinking and work methods of the featured artists. Its implicit promise is to illuminate the nature of two different media — chiefly ceramics and textiles. In almost every case, though, the textiles on display are less interesting than the artists’ works in their accustomed media.
There is one happy surprise, so I might as well start with that. Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) is known not as a ceramicist but as one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. Pregnant Woman (2002) is a small work, about the size of a baby’s squeeze toy, which it strongly resembles. It also has echoes of the Paleolithic “Venuses” that have been found in archaeological sites throughout Europe and are said to be humankind’s earliest sculptures.
The fabric that wraps this tiny sculpture looks like terry cloth, and here the fabric makes all the difference. It domesticates the form of an ancient stone fertility symbol into something soft and intimate. Bourgeois makes it more like a toy, but also more like a baby. Working with fabric inspired her to make something new.
The earliest works in the show were done by Betty Woodman (1930-2018) during the early 1980s. At the time, Woodman was among a handful of ceramic artists who were leaving functional objects behind and moving into pure sculpture. But even as she was moving away from vessels and dishes, when challenged to work with textile, she chose to design a colorful tablecloth and some napkins as part of a work called Presenting Food. She also designed a napkin stand for this setting, which a wall label says was the last functional work Woodman ever made, though nobody would acquire it as a practical piece.
Woodman also did a printed fabric titled Window (1982) to serve as a frame in which one of her vessels could be displayed. Today that piece appears to be perfectly of its moment, a time when serious artists and architects were rediscovering ornamentation and pattern — and slathering them across every possible surface.
Woodman’s frame partakes of some of the motifs of her ceramic work, but not its discipline. An untitled vessel she made in 1993 in collaboration with Viola Frey is the work displayed within Window for this exhibit. It looks just fine there, but it would probably look even better without the fabric.
Frey (1933-2004) specialized in creating large ceramic figural sculptures, sometimes larger than life. One of these, Man Balancing Urn (2004), a pompadoured lunk in a blue suit and a red tie, is in the show. He is reclining in front of Artist’s Mind/Studio/World (1992), a wallpaper she created at FWM.
Its design is extremely complex, a hodgepodge of religion, pop, and mystery that — as its title implies — attempts to incorporate everything on her mind, in her studio, and in the world. The wallpaper highlights the bright, streaky colors of the sculpture. But the guy on the floor is what you will remember.
Toshiko Takaezu (1922-2011) created beautifully glazed spherical objects, which she often called Moon Balls. At FWM from 1989 to 1991, she made a series using printed Belgian linen. In the show, these soft balls and the original hard ones are displayed together, and very effectively. Unlike the ceramic pieces, whose surfaces imitate stone, the cloth-covered balls are printed with a pattern of circles and colors that is altogether different.
Takaezu experimented with making the linen-covered balls resemble the ceramic ones. Some of her experiments and false starts are shown in a small vitrine. Apparently, she judged that the new moons’ material demanded a different approach, and she came up with something completely different, and almost as beautiful.
The contemporary artists in the show, perhaps because they had less time to work, do less with the textile component of their works.
I was delighted by the ceramic work of Brooklyn-based artist Shino Takeda. Through Space (2021) is a collection of dozens of small vessels, many on shelves, others suspended from the ceiling. There is almost too much to take in, which is why it is so engaging. You could spend the day looking at it. But it wasn’t until I came home and was looking at photos that I noticed the textile component of the piece, which is essentially the background.
The Philadelphia artist Jane Irish, who is also featured in the Art Museum’s current “New Grit” show, uses a piece of printed textile to serve as a canopy above a group of 2021 works, collectively titled Goya’s Dream. It consists primarily of eight painted potpourri vases that vaguely resemble the old sailing ships on which Spanish colonizers came to the Americas.
On these pieces, Irish has painted images, some inspired by Goya, that allude to colonialism and the war and oppression that it brought, both in the Americas and in Europe. This is a beautiful, thought-provoking installation, ambiguous but not as obscure as some of Irish’s work.
But as with most of the rest of what is on display, you will remember the pottery and probably forget the cloth.
Through Sept. 26 at the Fabric Workshop and Museum.
Hours: Noon-6 p.m. Weds.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat. and Sun., open Tues. for members only noon-6 p.m.
Admission: Free ($5 donation suggested).
Information: 215-561-8888 or fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.