Fabric Museum and Workshop in Philadelphia

[Note: I am currently on a NEA fellowship with the Visual Arts Journalism Institute, which brings 12 U.S. and 12 international journalists together for a two-week intensive at American University in D.C. This is the second assignment.]Several ThreadsFour from Philly take to the walls at the Fabric Workshop and Museum

By Gretchen Giles

Talk about your fish out of water! OK, not a fish but neither a mammal, Mocha Dick, Tristin Lowe’s 52-foot whale at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum is a sculptural dynamo that fills a full third of the FWM’s eighth floor gallery with the irresistible pulse of its presence. Prompted by Herman Melville’s epic comic novel Moby Dick—itself prompted by apocryphal tales of the killer albino whale said to have terrorized 19th century whalers in the South Pacific Ocean with an eerily human intent—Mocha Dick is a harmless, even benign being stuck far away from the ocean and placed high above city streets.

Made of white industrial wool felt and animated with a tight bladder that inflates during the day with a noisy fan, Mocha Dick is vulnerable to all exploration, and that is one of its many delights. Working with FWM staff, Lowe directed the museum’s seamstresses to mark the body with divets and scars, barnacles and the other random abrasions that come from a long life in the sea. The animal’s eyes are appropriately anthropomorphic, the viewer guiltily stopped by their sad silent stare before moving on (we, after all, are alive and it is not! sings the relieved cheer). Cleverly, the sculpture’s “skin” zips off the internal bladder, allowing the piece to be easily shipped in an ordinary crate, the zipper lines themselves adding structure to the whale’s fully tamed self.

Curious to a new visitor, Lowe’s massive woolen piece is only one of two installations in the FWM’s new exhibit to actually use fabric in its execution. Founded in 1977, the FWM has excitingly elasticized its mandate from the early post-macramé days to encompass work done in all media, some with nary a thread in sight. The FWM also seems to have tapped into some uncanny fount of funding that allows it to richly experiment. Sometimes, as with Mocha Dick, that money is delightfully spent; at other times, as with Pete Rose’s work, it is merely lavishly expended.

Sharing the eighth floor with Lowe, Rose’s video installation Pneumenon slightly acknowledges its benefactors by having a sheet of fabric physically hanging from the ceiling. Pneumenon insists upon the unsurprising fact that behind many sunny facades lie dark underpinnings. Showing a suburban campsite on a pleasant day, the soundtrack periodically booms, the camera focusing on a wind-blown tarp, our eyes aligned to the piece of physical fabric before us. Poof goes a fan, the fabric billows up, the cinematic tarp dissolves and the screen darkens with the specter of a tree in a lightning storm. Wow. Nature sure is scary.

Rose’s triptych video in the main room, Journey to Q’xtlan, is entirely outside of textile tradition, the video screen gyrating dully with dark random violence, the piece’s warp and weave knitted together only through a wearying art-speak project tag referring to “transfaluminations” and “sussurations” that ding like tin coins.

A short elevator ride brightens things considerably. The FWM’s current exhibit is dedicated to Philadelphia-based artists and, in addition to Lowe and Rose, Virgil Marti and recent “Younger Than Jesus” participant Ryan Trecartin generously enliven the institute’s first floor and adjacent New Temporary Contemporary gallery, respectively.

Marti’s ground-level installation evokes the waiting room to limbo itself. Gaudy gold floor-to-ceiling curtains are cast from human bone shapes, trompe l’oeil wallpaper glistens with the cream satin sheen of coffin upholstery and marvelously garish hotel lobby seating is capped with faux-mink and run with succulent fabrics too fine to merely sit upon; it would be far more appropriate to make savage love with a stranger or simply die alone on these rotund couches. Lighting sconces are arranged to form dragonflies and overripe flowers but, like the “beaded” curtains, are fashioned from human bone facsimiles. It’s all cheerful and bright and doomed and dead and utterly satisfying.

The greatest triumph in this rotation, however, belongs to video artist Trecartin, whose three short works—K-Corea Inc. K (Section A), Sibling Topics (Section A) and Re’Search Wait’S (Edit One: Re’Search Missing Corruption Budget) are part of a larger body that will expand over the coming year. Screened in rooms jumbled with furnishings and symbols found in the films, these riveting, loud, disturbing videos comment variously upon business structure, family dynamics, global corporate domination and shrill pop culture standards in which each one of us is our own shallow brand.

While the images are certainly disquieting—one quick cut reveals a disembodied human leg stuck in an ice chest where the beer should be while in another passage the innocent tip of a man’s penis repeatedly peeks out from beneath his skirt—the comment is acute. Narrative arc is buried in Trecartin’s pieces but nonetheless holds structure as “characters” take meetings, get advice, simulate sex, break glasses and scream at each other in ways that anyone who’s ever breezed past a reality television show will instantly and wincingly recognize as interactions uniquely our own in this 21st century.

Sonoma County Library