The Ties That Bind: Roberta Stokes's TIE-BREAKER Exhibit Breathes New Life into an Old Accessory

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Chances are that paisley tie you gave or received for Dad's Day that one year -- and quietly chucked into the oversized bin at Goodwill -- is now part of Roberta Stokes's TIE-BREAKER exhibition, on display at Art League Houston. It's a collection of ties, bowties and tie labels, all woven and put into frames, or manipulated into shapes -- like dresses.

Along the interior wall of the gallery are Stokes' "Tie Dresses," made up of ties in corresponding colors and vertically fused together into silhouettes that dance along the walls like fabric store hieroglyphics. The "sleeves" are actually ties flipped up or bent down to connote the imagined dress-wearer's personality and action. Each "dress," or "kimono," as Stokes calls them, bearing a specific category of tie -- patterned, bright colors, flowers, etc. -- is its own theme; Stokes mentions them in groups, like the "drinking group" and the "eating group." The "cartoon group" features beloved characters like Tweety and Snoopy, and it's interesting to wonder what whimsical soul owned each tie before it made its way into her creative hands.

The other wall of the gallery hosts perhaps the most eye-catching pieces in the exhibit, the tie paintings, which are not paintings at all, but actual ties intricately interlaced in a basket weave design and surrounded by a silver frame. While "Tie Painting I" is a modest package of knitted-together ties with bored stripes and cheesy polka dots in rustic burgundies and burnt-out blues, "Tie Painting II" kicks it up a notch with a conglomerate of the same business-meeting ties, only this time punctuated by one tropically decorated brother hanging right down the middle. "Tie Painting III" evens things out a bit, allowing for equal exposure of both boardroom and happy hour ties.

TIE-BREAKER began innocently; Stokes's husband handed her 20 worn ties to donate to charity. Instead of giving them away, she decided to make a 25-square tie tapestry. From there, work with the ties evolved into an eight-year project and near obsession in which the former and pioneering modern dance instructor would search high and low through retail and junk shops, looking for ties that cost no more than three dollars apiece ($4.70 for the tie she wore on the night of her opening was a splurge, she said). The tie tapestry turned into "tie farmers," i.e., tie-made faces of celebrities. Cutting labels off ties and stick pinning them to wood would become her "butterfly section," seen in the "World of Ties I," "World of Ties II," "World of Ties III" and "World of Ties IV." People who knew about her work started giving her ties, and she would start finding and photographing men with ties; the evidence is found on "Men Add Color" and "Happy Fathers Day," a collage of ties and photographs of the men wearing them (black-and-white in the former, color in the latter) on canvas. Three years into the project, her husband would start to call Stokes's growing collection "the ties that 'blind.'"

More like the ties that bind. Stokes's collection is novel.

TIE-BREAKER will be on display at Art League Houston, 1953 Montrose, until April 27. For more information, contact 713-523-9530.

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