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Lace It Up

Sewing materials become something else entirely in "Perspectives 140"

Anne Wilson breathes life into inanimate objects in her video installation, Errant Behaviors. A heap of lace attempts to walk, like Buster Keaton playing a drunk. A pin carries a tangle of cloth. Two more pins bend and caress each other. Wilson and her collaborators have used stop-action animation to make the sewing materials move, anthropomorphizing them into 23 film sketches reminiscent of old silent slapstick shorts. They're shown in random sequence on two opposing walls, with the soundtrack pumping out everything from electronic bleeps and squeals to insectlike buzzing and the sounds of rain and wind. Errant Behaviorsis the single most entertaining piece of its type I've ever seen in a museum environment. My attention was torn between the two screens as the soundtracks overlapped, creating a tension that enhanced the excitement of the visuals. The installation is on view as part of the Contemporary Arts Museum's "Perspectives 140" exhibition of works by Wilson.

While the film shorts depict inert objects brought to life, another work, Topologies, (1-4.04), pins their wings back down. In it, a 36-foot-long white table is covered with pieces of black lace, carefully dismembered along its lines. The patterns in which the bits of lace are arranged together are based on the patterns of the lace itself. Some of the small bits -- cloth balls with strings dangling -- look like insects. The effect is exaggerated by their being displayed impaled on pins, like butterflies in their cases. A piece of mosquito netting, torn in places, is stretched across one section, suggesting some kind of membrane, or a shed snakeskin. The entire piece looks as if it could have been grown as much as it was built.

The composition of the various groups in Topologies suggests a self-organization grown from the forms of the materials. Like pieces have places together on the table. Some are pinned down; some lay in heaps; some are laid out in carefully defined lines and squiggles. As the viewer walks around the table, the staked-out areas sometimes resemble organic or geologic groupings -- "topologies" of hills, forests, streams. Other times, one is reminded of high school biology movies, with their strands of DNA and groupings of single-cell algae into the beginnings of complicated life-forms. There's a near-infinity of surprises as you change your angle and distance of observation.

The artist is known for referencing feminist issues. Instead of traditional materials, she uses "feminine" materials such as hair, lace and damask. The works refer to the "crafts" of embroidery and lace-making as much as to the "arts" of painting and sculpture. Torn black lace typically conjures images of violence or depravity. But Topologies turns the tables on those associations, referring to the craft involved in its creation and building a small universe from it.

Conversation in the art world today is often as much about process, materials and concepts as it is about color, form and line. Wilson the theorist talks the talk with the most obscure and theoretical thinkers out there. Speaking of Topologies, she mentions "relationships between systems of materiality and systems of immateriality," "horizontal topographies" and "deconstructing the webs and networks of found black lace." Wilson the artist simply tears the lace apart. The theorist speaks of "close observation, dissection and recreation." The artist just plays with lace.

The date reference in the title of Topologies, (1-4.04) is used to indicate that the piece is both site-specific installation (with previous versions installed at the 2002 Whitney Biennial and in Chicago) and performance, the "performance" being the construction of the piece in its new version. If putting the artwork together is a performance, then the artwork itself is a kind of souvenir of the performance. There would seem to then be nothing to clearly separate the notions of performance, record and artifact. The theorists can play with these notions all day, but for you and me, all that matters is whether a work engages us enough to hold our attention and stimulate a useful (or entertaining) set of emotions or notions.

Another work in the show, A Chronicle of Days, consists of a grid of 100 frames. Each contains a fragment of white damask to which a "stain" of human hair has been attached via the embroidery method of couching. The hair within each frame is a single color, but colors and texture vary from frame to frame. Viewed as a whole, it's a cool, mostly white, abstract work. On close examination, each frame presents a thoughtfully composed minimal "picture."

I do have a quibble about this piece. The 100 panels are supposed to represent a daily meditation done from July 1997 to February 1998. By my arithmetic, this time span must cover at least 186 days (even if including only one day in July and one in February). So where are the other 86 pieces? How "daily" is daily? Is it necessary to have a confused conception of time to be an artist? Maybe that's why their day jobs never quite work out.

There can be something daunting about approaching an exhibit or a piece of work that comes attached to so much theory, especially when the theory uses so many words with multiple syllables and words twisted from one part of speech to another. But when the objects themselves are this absorbing, the theory doesn't stand in the way.

 
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