Art involving fabric – commonly referred to as fiber art – has acquitted itself superbly around Maine recently, particularly in shows at Space Gallery in Portland, Maine Fiberarts in Topsham and Craft Gallery in Rockland.

I was particularly impressed with Alia Ali’s textile-oriented installation work “+/-” at Space. The Austria-based Yemeni-Bosnian-American multimedia artist combined portrait-style photos of herself and her husband facelessly wrapped in textiles in Space’s black-walled interior with textile interventions on the tables, bar, furniture and stage elements. Despite the typical cliches so many try to hang on to fiber and textile (feminist, craft, etc.), Ali’s savvy and sophisticated installation reached more deeply into our notions of sense and perception than we typically expect of contemporary art.

While Ali’s subtle twists on identity, gender and cultural invasiveness are all worthy of discussion, what struck me about “+/-” was something so old-school that very few people are still aware of it: Ali’s textiles on the walls (and everywhere else) had an incredible dampening effect on the acoustics of the space; by removing echoes, noise is reduced and sound is clearer. And because Space hosts live music, films and lectures, the role of acoustics in the space is hardly an afterthought.

One of the best American art exhibitions of the past decade was a huge show in 2014 of vast tapestries by the great 16th-century Netherlandish artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a musician as well as an art historian, I was absolutely floored by the acoustical effects of van Aelst’s tapestries. It makes sense why kings sought such tapestries; in addition to the show of wealth, stone castle walls are cold and echoey. But to actually get to hear the difference from our loud, car-thrumming and staticky world. Well, that was a game-changer.

I imagine some tattooed hipsters with loud guitars might be getting unexpected lessons in art, architecture and sound when they plug in at Space and hear the difference Ali’s interventions make.

I write this with an apology in mind: The main part of Ali’s show was taken down this week. But many elements of her installation will stay up, visually quiet and audibly so.

The subtle aspects of Ali’s work overpower its more polemic and ideological qualities focused on identity. These are important topics, but sometimes they benefit by not always occupying the front door of the conversation.

“All this Time” by Cassie Jones, 2012, acrylic, felt and staples on panel. Image courtesy of the artist

Able Baker Contemporary’s “Selvedge,” curated by Tessa Greene O’Brien, is an exhibition that introduces a range of topics well-addressed by contemporary fiber artists – and contemporary art in general.

For textile people, selvedge is an interruption in the weave of manufactured fabric that prevents it from unraveling. Yet, the source of the word is geological: It is the altered edge of a mineral body, in particular, volcanic glass.

While I am intrigued by the craft content, the obvious conversation in “Selvedge” is between fiber and painting. We’re expecting fiber works that look like paintings, and we get them. But “Selvedge” does an even better job of showing us excellent paintings that act like fiber. The two that bookend this coup include the work of Erica Licea-Kane and Cassie Jones.

Licea-Kane is a fiber artist who makes what look like 100-layer versions of Jeff Woodbury road maps. As fiber, they are strong – but there’s a catch. Licea-Kane is a fiber artist; however, works like “In Between #3” are nothing but acrylic paint, though they look like fiber. As paintings, they practically vibrate with witty intelligence. As fiber, they are even better – fun, dense, intellectual, witty and painterly – despite the fact that, unlike everything ever painted on canvas, they contain no fiber.

Yeah. That. Painting’s relationship to fiber is tethered to the canvas. We can talk about 1970s American artist Lee Bontecou or postwar European masters Alberto Burri and Luciano Fontana, but we might as well lean back to Cezanne’s unfinished-seeming works and the unpainted spots on the canvases of the Impressionists and German Expressionists. Painting and fiber have been inextricably bound for a long, long time.

Cassie Jones is one of Maine’s most creative painters. And this is tough to see without context, particularly because she bounces from approach to approach far more quickly than most serious painters. “Selvedge” practically feels like it was designed to say, “Oh, yeah, what Cassie was doing a few years ago was absolutely brilliant.” And considering works like Jones’ acrylic, felt and staples on panel “All This Time” (2012), it would be hard to deny.

It’s a painting on a small, square panel, semi-swallowed by a puffy “H” form of Kermit the Frog-colored felt. The panel features black and white stripes that squeeze in from the top and bottom to the compressed crossbar of the “H.”

“Weather (3)” by Martha Tuttle, 2017, silk, wool, pigment, dye, steel. Photo by Daniel Kany

Jones’ “The End of That” is like an Ad Reinhardt black cross painted (hilariously) by a muppet. “First and Last” also follows the muppet and stripes logic. The hipsterism is a bit much, but it is sufficiently kitschy not to succumb in this nod to Brooklyn. Jones is hardly operating in a vacuum; her conversation with contemporary painting was active then, and now, four years later, we can truly see how on top of it she was. (“American Genre: Contemporary Painting,” curated by artist Michelle Grabner at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, around the corner from Able Baker, is worthy evidence of this.)

Maria Molteni’s hung-blanket works succeed in the context of “Selvedge,” whereas I suspect that, alone in an empty space, they wouldn’t make their own case. But here, they convey the notion of painting as flat color-covered fabric with painterly content on the wall, and it works.

The artist around whom “Selvedge” settles, however, is Martha Tuttle. Her painting-shaped, minimal “Weather (3)” holds court at the far end of the first-floor gallery, understated and elegant. It is comprised of just a few hung rectangles of wool and silk, weighted with three metal bits that are easy to overlook (but that may inspire envy in jewelers). Tuttle’s sense of nuance, apparent in this piece alone, is prolific.

Tuttle’s trio of 10- by 12-inch “Like water I have no skin” painting-like works (Nos. 5, 6 and 8) are no less worthy than Jones’ and Licea-Kane’s, but their material sophistication plays a different role. While Jones – dancing with hipster kitsch – doles out the fun, Tuttle reveals a material elegance worthy of runway fashion. And while Licea-Kane’s cross-media reference works as both painting and fiber, Tuttle’s fiber art is unapologetic in its superseding of painting’s turf. In fact, “#8” looks like woven wool (maybe a hat) is swallowing a painting whole. It’s visually gorgeous on its own, but within the context of the troubled relationship between painting and fiber, it’s patricide with a sharp-witted blade. (I wouldn’t want to be Tuttle’s father.)

But what truly resonates about Tuttle’s work is the sensuality of the material, something so often missing in the perfunctory aesthetic of conceptualism. She backs up her wit by walking the walk – which is what we also see from Jones and Licea-Kane. All press a concept-driven sense of content, but all include process, material, craftsmanship and medium, not only in their execution but in their content as well.

“Selvedge” deserves credit for its perky ideas, but they are ideas that have been percolating in the work of some of the region’s best artists over the past few years. Bringing them into focus, as O’Brien has done, is worthy, but I hope to see and hear more about this long-simmering fibrous conversation.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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