Visual intelligence is the key to visual art: optical interest, design excellence, unexpected textures, compelling color, the creative use of materials, witty images, entertaining theatricality, persuasive messaging, impressive illusion and so on.

In ages past, we bought into the hierarchies solidified by the institutional giants, such as French Academy (which hosted the Salon – the annual exhibition at the Louvre) or by the elite galleries, magazines and museum venues in America that have been seen as the bully pulpit of this country’s “artworld” leaders. But with the post-WWII ascendancy of the United States as not only the military, political and economic leader of the West but its cultural beacon as well, things have changed.

The academic hierarchies crumbled – if not completely, then enough to let the light in from other cultural practices. And with the appeal of movements such as Surrealism, Cubism, German Expressionism and Abstraction, American artists came to accept the idea that artists’ truest path lay with their personal struggle to express themselves through their materials, and Abstract Expressionism was born.

While painting, sculpture, drawing and the traditional institutionally-supported mediums remained in focus, Americans saw that the content of Abstract Expressionism allowed for any material to be the arena for the artists’ struggle. So Americans turned more and more to elemental arts – such as the fire arts – in addition to painting, drawing and sculpture. Clay, glass, metal, weaving and more came into focus, American craft began to flourish in the 1950s, and it flourished as art.

Is that too much context to talk about a show of felted work that includes scarves and hats in addition to vessels and wall-hangings? Frankly, I think we’re not even close to covering the context. And that is what I thought walking into Marina Rheault Post’s show, “Hot Alchemy: Felt Interactions,” at Ocean House Gallery in Cape Elizabeth.

Post is a University of Maine-educated and Chicago-based fiber artist who learned about felt in studies at the Textílsetur Ísland Blönduòs, Iceland, and with Nicola Brown in Kilkenny, Ireland. Post’s work reaches to both the elemental level of the material of felt and the liminal edges of what we hope from ambitious visual art at its best.

Post’s felt vessels play brilliantly within the vessel tradition, one of the oldest and eternally most robust strands in the visual arts. From there, they leap into contemporary sculpture. Her wall pieces interact with her scarves and textile-related pieces in ways that both acknowledge and challenge our contemporary expectations.

It only takes a moment to realize that Post isn’t merely a “craft” artist. To be clear, I think there is no distinction between “craft” and “art,” only between “art” and “kitsch.” I also think that fine craft is often best positioned to take on questions of craftsmanship, personal subjectivity (as in identity politics and, in particular, feminism – that being my position) and content in contemporary art. Fine craft is the David to the institutionalized arts’ Goliath, and it’s just common sense that underdogs make better revolutionaries.

Post’s small show in the diminutive Ocean House Gallery is gorgeous but subtle. To be sure, it’s more easily noticed by folks who have an eye for fashion, textiles, fiber and environmentally friendly organic materials. And even these genres can be distracting: If you notice Post’s incredible organically printed scarves, hats, cup cozies or slippers while you’re in seasonal shopping mode, you might not as necessarily notice her vessels or wall-hangings.

To be clear, I think fashion doesn’t have to bow to visual art – not at all. But I do think you could miss Post’s sculptural (and therefore artistic) sophistication if you are distracted by her fiber and textile-based fashion objects. (Aesthetics are no less distracting in painting.) I was blown away by her natural-object-stained silk fabrics. But in Post’s felted objects, I saw beautiful and compelling art. Her double-hulled felted vessels are sculptures worthy of the leading vessel traditions.

I’ve seen something like Post’s once-folded vessels in Seoul, Korea, and some similarly-minded glass and clay vessels, but it’s reasonably rare stuff. The folded vessels aren’t just vessels: They’re savvy bits of sculpture – and well-engineered objects. Chicago has an excellent history of object art; between the Art Institute of Chicago and the nation-leading annual Navy Pier SOFA show (Sculptural Objects, Functional Art and Design), Chicago is a place from which we should certainly expect excellence in fine craft. Post doesn’t disappoint.

To be sure, Post’s double-hulled vessels impressed me the most as art objects. But her printed fabrics revealed an extraordinary sense of organic nuance in terms of image and a feel for fabric that is too often missing even in fine fashion. And felt isn’t just fabric; it’s much more.

Felt, a material traditionally made by matting or pressing together animal hair, such as wool, is the oldest fabric known to humanity. Felt is not only known for clothing, but for structures – even housing, such as yurts. It’s a core element of Western musical instruments, from keypads in a saxophone or cymbal stands in a drum kit to the hammers of a piano.

Post’s felt work, in particular, comprises some of the most compelling fiber work we’ve seen recently in the area, and Maine has a particularly strong set of fiber artists. The more you see of her work – wall pieces, wearable art, vessels, hand-printed fabrics and so on – the more Post’s compelling sensibilities come into focus. It’s a small show, but there’s a lot to take in.

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

[email protected]