There are two highly unusual things about the latest exhibit at Bellevue Arts Museum, a show of ultra-contemporary fiber art called “The Mysterious Content of Softness.” The first is that one of the artists has dribbled his own blood all over his embroidery work. The second is that that artist is, in fact, also a curator of Tacoma Art Museum – Rock Hushka, who’s stepping over the curatorial line in this boundary-breaking show.
Apart from the blood, though, Hushka’s work is pretty tame in its envelope-pushing, compared to that of the 10 other artists in the BAM show, which opened last Friday. As I wandered around with curator Stefano Catalani, who was delving into the thrust of identity issues raised by the (mostly) young artists, I couldn’t help comparing textile to glass art – both are still a little self-conscious about being mistaken for “craft,” and both are perfect for exposing and stripping off our preconceptions about things via a medium that imitate other objects (body parts, human construction) while dishing out a big helping of irony.
Hushka’s embroidery fits right in here. In its own mini-gallery, hung under low light like a medieval museum, his small panels of embroidery mounted on linen take on the serenity and seriousness of their ancestors – intricate seed and bullion stitch in muted greens and reds, weaving tiny flowers and healing messages (“Salve”) like a defiant prayer. And then you see the blood. Dripped in by the teaspoonful, it blotches over the thread in dark, inky pools, imitated by patches of red sewing. It’s Hushka’s own blood, in case you were wondering, and yes, he okayed this outing (so to speak) into the artist’s role with colleagues at TAM and elsewhere.
Hushka says lightly that he felt “the world needed some post-modern embroidery soaked in blood,” but what he’s getting at here is more than just cleverness. Worked at 3 a.m. on sleepless nights, his panels combine a last-ditch hope in medicinal healing (rather like herbal unctions in medieval plague times) with the stark realities of death in a post-AIDS generation.
Around the rest of BAM’s third floor are similar expressions of irony. Artists like Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger take the fabric-is-female stereotype and make it into a comedy, on the wall a photo of the two of them (old-timey beards, macho shorts) happily knitting their ongoing pink scarf tube in a fishing boat. On the floor is the tube, now 60 feet of highly metaphorical pink fleshiness exuding the men’s own domesticity. Other artists work on the same metaphor reversal: Lacey Roberts knits a chainlink fence out of hot pink yarn, the ultimate statement of image reversal, while Jeremy Chase Sanders’ handmade plaid, ties and shoes work out undercurrents of queer identity that you have to read the label to realize.
One of the most startling installations is from Angela Ellsworth, who draws on her own Mormon background to highlight the pain and constriction of polygamy on women. Her room full of bonnets mounted on poles in conversational groups are made of gray silk and iridescent pearl corsage pins, each driven into the “heads” with thousands of needle-sharp points.
Other artists play on the nature of textile. Lauren DiCioccio sews fabric into objects – film slides, National Geographics, a skull and hourglass – which becomes a skillful still life like Pop Art reversed in time, decaying with unraveling threads. In the corner is Lisa Kellner’s gorgeous sea-life organism made of hundreds of red silk “polyps” that seem to creep across the room and multiply when the museum closes for the night.
Also in BAM right now: April Surgent’s layered glass “photographs” and furniture of John Cedarquist.
“The Mysterious Content of Softness” is up through June 26. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday0-Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. 510 Bellevue Wat NE, Bellevue. 425-519-0770, www.bellevuearts.org