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Anne Wilson: Wind/Rewind/Weave.

Anne Wilson: Wind/Rewind/Weave

January 22-April 25, 2010

Devorah Sperber: Threads of Perception

October 30, 2009-March 14, 2010

Knoxville Museum of Art

Knoxville, Tennessee

Strangely, the use of fibers in contemporary art often prompts an immediately polarized set of reactions in viewers. Assumptions often arise that the artist is either engaged with feminist issues (following the stereotype that fiber artists must be women or, at least, feminists) or in the pursuit of a craft aesthetic. While this situation might have seemed typical, even necessary, thirty or forty years ago, there's an anachronistic feel to such a reaction in the present day. Two recent exhibitions at the Knoxville Museum of Art served to elicit new responses: the installations and site-specific art in Wind/Rewind/Weave by Anne Wilson and the fiber art displayed in Threads of Perception by Devorah Sperber. Much of the local reaction to these exhibitions fell into the tired patterns of response to such work--often the sheer amount of work itself was cited as one sign of the exhibitions' significance, and allusions to feminism or craft were certainly present in critical responses. (1) Yet what was remarkable about this pair of exhibitions was the space that opened up between them, created by similar materials dissociated through conceptual differences. Each artist works in the medium of fiber and each takes a more conceptual approach to their artistic production, but the similarities end abruptly there; Wilson's and Sperber's bodies of work exist as oppositional paradigms, both shifting away from craft traditions at an equal pace while progressively moving in opposite directions towards different outcomes.


Wilson presented three works in a dialogue with local history and conditions encased within the history of conceptual art: Rewinds (2010), a new work shown for the first time, consisted of glass bobbins placed low to the ground, forming a deconstructed carpet of glass over 12 feet in length. (2) Wind-Up: Walking the Warp was a video presentation of a performance/installation piece first done in Chicago in 2008 with ten performers creating a complicated warp on a large frame over a long period of time. (3) Finally, with Local Industry (2010), Wilson sought to bring a hands-on experience to the museum that would involve the community through a conceptual dialogue between hand labor and industrial production. Local Industry in particular was noteworthy; involving a multi-stage process, using threads donated from mills throughout the United States, Wilson created an opportunity for both experienced and inexperienced weavers to create bobbins, which were then displayed in a chromatically structured fashion. These bobbins were in turn used to weave a fabric that was an amalgamation of the color choices of the participants. (4) Taken together, Wilson's art is both about the process and the materials, an exploration phenomenologically exploring the space regardless of the viewers' presence or later absence. Through the interactivity that is such a prominent feature of her work, Wilson's art provided participants an opportunity for immersion into something analogous to subsumption architecture (5) while continuing to assert a non-autonomous role of the viewer in the exhibition experience; to put it another way, Wilson's art required the participation of the viewers through the kinds of habitual behavior endemic to interactive art while cancelling out their participation in the final product.

Sperber's exhibition consisted of works that translate fiber processes and materials into visual and experiential reproductions of images readily familiar to the viewer, like Holbein's The Ambassadors or da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Last Supper. Sperber's works engage the viewer in thinking about vision itself. She uses spools of thread and chenille stems to assemble her images upside down and in reverse. The spools operate like pixels, producing images that seem to have been blown up beyond the maximum resolution. To complete the process of reception of the image, the audience must view the image through a focusing device, like a mirror, lens or acrylic sphere, which optically corrects the distorted appearances of Sperber's tableaus and renders them recognizable. (6) "As a visual artist," she says, "I cannot think of a topic more stimulating and yet so basic than the act of seeing--how the human brain makes sense of the visual world." (7) In a 1962 response to criticism of his book Art and Illusion, Ernst Gombrich described the optical process that Sperber's works exploit:
      I take in the visual impression together
   with the conviction that this
   form is in front of that other, this other
   one further away and the third right
   above the second. Indeed it needs an effort
   to realize that what I have in front
   of me is a two-dimensional order and
   that what is seen as behind another
   form is really located above it not to
   speak of the effort it needs to realize
   that above need not mean further away
   but may also mean nearer, when it
   comes to the ceiling. (8)


In a fascinating fashion, Sperber's art almost becomes an articulation of the ideas of Gombrich and other art historians of the twentieth century, who were concerned just as much with the nature of the objects of art history as with the very process of seeing and interpreting. Sperber's art creates a space in which a dialectical process takes place between the familiar and the unfamiliar through the mechanics of vision, a space in which the mechanics themselves become the focus. In Sperber's work, the technologies and artificiality of optical reproduction methods of image production syncretically intertwine with and reflect on the processes of natural vision, each echoing the other through the distortive methods of the productive processes and emerging as resolved precisely in the experience of the art, generating a heightened awareness of how we see the world and of the essential artificiality of artistic representation.

Separately, each exhibition was fascinating and worthy of close attention. However, in conjunction, their combined gravity demands further reflection. While Wilson's and Sperber's works both utilize fiber materials, this point of intersection is in some degree an unenlightening coincidence. Close consideration reveals that not only the artist's intentions but also their very approaches to the material are entirely different, almost opposite. Where Wilson's art is largely about the material as a informed vehicle for the conceptual exploration of the means and process of creation, Sperber deploys material in images informed by the science of vision, producing works in which the visual end rather than the creative means is conceptually at stake. Sperber's works challenge our understanding of visual reception and Wilson's our notions of creative vision. Comparisons, nevertheless, are unavoidable, and demand that questions be asked about the concurrent nature of the exhibitions as a pair.


Jacques Lacan's concept of the point de capiton seems appropriate here as an interpretative tool. The point de capiton, a "quilting point," is an indication of phenomenological linguistic planes intersecting each other in the process of signification, seemingly full of meaning in the conscious mind while, nevertheless, merely being residual. (9) Such residualness, while being empty, necessitates within normative discourse a generation of meaning, such that the recognition of the facticity of the intersectivity with signification generates further signification as an emptiness around which the signification operates. To put it another way, patterns of speech crisscrossing each other seem to create meaning for the consciousness but only create emptiness which is then filled by the unconsciousness with hope and desire for meaning that then seems to become meaningful. For Lacan:
   This transmutation is of the order of the signifier
   as such. No accumulation, no superimposition,
   no summation of meanings, is sufficient to justify
   it. The entire progress ... resides in the transmutation
   of the situation through the intervention of
   the signifier. (10)

Even more fundamentally, when describing the topology of the conscious-unconscious relationship, Lacan notes that the point de capiton is the means by which "the signifier stops the otherwise indefinite sliding of signification" and creates a reassuring though false sense of meaning. (11) Thus, the point de capiton functions in the Symbolic order as a producer of meaning, an anchor for signification, while remaining illusionary.

This pair of exhibitions intersect within the museum space, each one creating a residual effect on the other, an outcome certainly unintended by the artists; while one's initial tendency may be to seek interpretive convergences in the two exhibitions, their differences confound any neat resolution. The unusual occurence of two fiber arts exhibitions simultaneously in the same museum provides an opportunity to think through the current state of the medium by measuring its distance from its craft roots and taking up the distinct and dissimilar challenges posed by Wilson's and Sperber's art. However, this pair of exhibition does not definitively resolve those challenges to our understanding of the present scope of the fiber arts; instead one is left with two separate, excellent exhibitions and only nonsensical and unanswered questions if one tries to think of them in conversation. Craft and fiber art have too often been relegated to the edges of the visual art world. The KMA had an opportunity to continue redefining those parameters but fell short here. Thinking of Wilson's and Sperber's exhibitions as signifying chains, each with their own related constructive and eliding signifiers that cross at the KMA as a 'quilting point,' allows a space of jouissance to reveal itself. This space of unknowing and unthinking joy permits one to accept the art on its own terms but equally reveals the mistake in supposing that something extra has been learned or disclosed simply because such divergent work was on view at the same time.


Scott Contreras-Koterbay

East Tennessee State University


(1.) Amy McRary, "Spools of thread become fine art in Sperber's exhibit at KMA,", oct/23/spools-thread-become-fine-art-sperbers-exhibit-kma/ (accessed June 2010). Amy McRary, "Winders, weavers create harmonious art at KMA,", (accessed June, 2010).

(2.) Wilson, Anne, " Wind/Rewind/Weave," (accessed June, 2010).

(3.) Anne Wilson, " Wind/Rewind/Weave," (accessed June, 2010).

(4.) "Interactive textile exhibit at the KMA,", (accessed June, 2010).

(5.) A form of programming architecture wherein decisions are devolved into progressively simpler behavior modules that are hierarchically organized, with lower levels granted decision capabilities that are accounted for by higher, progressively abstract levels.

(6.) MASS MoCA, "Interpretations: Devorah Sperber," http://www. (accessed June, 2010).

(7.) "Devorah Sperber," (accessed June, 2010).

(8.) Ernst Gombrich, "Letters to the Editor - Illusions in Painting, The Gombrich Archives," originally published in Discovery (July, 1962): 47-8, (accessed July, 2010).

(9.) Bruce Fink more accurately translates this as "button tie," in reference to its use as an upholsterer's term, cf. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), 351, but I think the dynamic nature of Lacan's term is preserved in the more contentious and, admittedly, less accurate translation, particularly in the context of these exhibitions.

(10.) Jacques Lacan, The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56, trans. Russell Grigg (London: Routledge, 1993), 267.

(11.) Jacques Lacan, "The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious," Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), 291-92.
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Author:Contreras-Koterbay, Scott
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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