A mola is a hand-assembled textile conceived and made by the Guna people of Panama, in Central America, and Colombia, in South America. These vividly colorful, highly geometric, stylized plant and animal portraits are a popular trade item, and discerning travelers to the Guna’s homelands study, purchase, collect, and exchange them. They also work them into their own crafts creations, something their makers take for granted: these arts are meant to be used, not to end up put away in boxes and only rarely to be taken out and enjoyed. Now look closely: that guitar-playing cat is wearing a Zoot suit, and that turtle is accompanied by a scuba diver. Molas are not frozen references to one time or place; they indulge in the cultural zeitgeist. The things they portray certainly didn’t start with them, so why should they end there? Timmy Burton, a beloved member of Salt Lake’s Applique and Surface Design community, brought many molas back from her travels and sometimes couldn’t resist adding them to her own projects, where she would figuratively ground them by using the mola’s motifs in her transfer patterns. Timmy and her husband, Richard, a photographer, are gone now, but their memories mean so much to their fellow artists that they placed Timmy’s “Art Vest” in the entrance to the Mary Meigs Atwater Weavers’ Guild of Utah Annual, currently in the Celebration Gallery in the Utah Cultural Celebration Center.
Crafts are essentially arts concerned with the potential of a material rather than with a freestanding design. They made great strides in the 20th century: wood, glass, ceramics, and personal adornment, among others, all knocked at the art museum’s door and were variously admitted. It’s a curious thing that, even as modernism undermined confidence in the artists’ pursuit of perfection, making skill and technique suspect qualities, the influx of crafts held the door open for the return of the quaint idea that good art could also be well made. Thus some of the textile works in this show will give priority to the fallible hand and exploratory approach of contemporary art, while others combine machine-like perfection of execution with one-of-a-kind attention to detail. Lisa Chin’s “Is It Safe Yet” employs well-executed embroidery and quilting techniques which, however, she deliberately mis-assembles to suggest disjunction, perhaps even an explosion. The viewer then puts the title question in the voices of the persons seen only as eyes peering out through a slit in the armored-looking surface. Is it Covid? Armed rebellion? Escalating climatic disaster? We aren’t told, but Chin has used dyed fabric and stitching to give dimension to a threat we can each ponder and identify with.
By comparison, many of the weavings here take a more traditional approach. That is not to say they don’t invoke a whole universe of sensations and mental responses. To say that weaving begins with an arbitrary number of parallel threads — the warp — through which a second set of threads are run back and forth — the weft — is to beggar the reality of what may well be the most infinitely variable craft ever invented. If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider that the most fundamental operations of computing machines had their origin in mechanisms created to control the operation of weaving machines during the Industrial Revolution. Add, that everything the Jacquard system automated, was — and still is — done manually by human weavers. To give just one example of the the infinite variety of weaving techniques is hopelessly inadequate, so Mimi Rodes give two in her trio of Ikat samples. Ikat produces an organic pattern that results from dying either the warp or weft threads before weaving them together. The result is a basic woven fabric with the complex character usually achieved by more complex operations.
That said, those more complex methods are the true glory of weaving, and most of the works here, even Mimi Rodes’, aspire to — and frequently attain — the status of showstoppers. Doni Pack’s “Gothic Crosses” and Leslie Sieburth’s “Sierpinsky-ish Triangles,” to take two utterly arbitrary examples, each possesses a multitude of dimensions. Laid flat, their visible designs occupy two-dimensional planes, but on close inspection, a third dimension within the cloth is revealed. This depth, produced by using multiple colors and arranging them at various depths within the fabric, produces color effects that may shift or shimmer as the viewing angle changes. Add to that the sculptural flexibility of cloth and the eye is suddenly confronted by five dimensions, not the original two, and each may be put in play by shifts in, for example, the garment that wraps around a body and moves both with and against it. Even a simple utilitarian piece, like Ping Chang’s four-shaft twill “Diamond and Circle Towels” can suddenly convert a task like drying one’s hands into a riveting treat for the eye. And if “four-shaft twill” sounds daunting, try Carol Fultz’s “deflected double weave” or Juliette Lanvers’ “turned taqueté,” in which individual lines of one color run back and forth above a solid background of a contrasting color.
I knew a glass master who designed a piece to be seen lying on the gallery floor, but who could never bring himself to put it so much in harm’s way. It seems his work was inherently inferior to Catherine Marchant’s “Twice Woven Rug,” which must reward the housekeeper whose floor it adorns by keeping guests there, devouring it with their eyes long enough to truly get their shoes clean. With that thought in mind, it’s clear that not everyone can countenance, or afford, having such beautiful works doing mundane tasks in their surroundings. If only William Morris could speak to us today. Morris, before he founded the best-known talent agency, spoke out as a member of the Arts and Crafts Movement for his belief that a few beautiful things do more for our spiritual well-being than all the cheap and marginally useful material possessions in the world. And half an hour spent in the West Valley Gallery might do as much to counter the blues that affect so many of us as an expensive dive into retail therapy.
Fabulous Fibers! A Celebration of Utah Fiber Artists!, Utah Cultural Celebration Center, West Valley City, through Oct. 3.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.